Multiple towns in Germany feature Snow White-themed tourist attractions. However, two of them stand out; both claim to be the birthplace of a real woman who inspired the fairytale. In this blog post, I'll be looking at the first woman to be proposed as "the real Snow White."
As the usual summary goes, this kind-hearted young woman suffered under the authority of a harsh stepmother. In their castle hung an elaborate mirror said to speak. They lived in a forested area near a mining town with very short workers. But upon investigation, there are a lot of inaccuracies being passed around.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal (1725-1796)
Location: Lohr am Main, Bavaria
Maria Sophia was born in 1725 (some sources incorrectly say 1729), one of ten children of the baron Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife Maria Eva. (They had seven sons and three daughters, although some died young). A family genealogy remembered her as kind, pious and generous.
Maria Sophia caught smallpox when she was young, leaving her mostly blind. It's possible this also left her with facial scarring. However, the painting above - which is believed to be her portrait - does not show any scars.
Maria Eva died, and in 1743 Philipp married the widowed Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein. She had two children from her previous marriage. Maria Sophia would have been 18 at the time of the wedding.
According to the theory, Philipp's status seemed kinglike to local townspeople. His absences on long work trips paralleled the absence of Snow White's father in the fairytale. As for Claudia: in 1992, historian Werner Loibl uncovered a 1743 letter that she wrote while Philipp was in England on state business, not long after their wedding. The letter shows that Claudia read and responded to his mail while he was out of the country, and that she suggested her son's former tutor for a government position. Based on this, Loibl painted her as a domineering wife and stepmother.
The area of Lohr features thick woods, like the wild forest of the fairytale, and seven mountains beyond which lies the mining town of Bieber. The miners would have been short-statured in order to enter the small tunnels. The Grimm fairytale mentions that the dwarfs live beyond seven mountains.
Lohr's local industries included metalworking, glassworking, and especially high-quality mirrors - tying into the fairytale's iron shoes, glass casket, and magic mirror. The mirrors could be considered to "speak" or "tell the truth" because they showed particularly clear reflections, and/or because they came inscribed with traditional mottoes. Maria Sophia's family owned one such mirror, a magnificent red-and-silver-framed looking glass 1.6 meters tall (5.25 feet) which is still in the Lohr Castle, now a museum. The frame is decorated with the phrases "Pour la recompense et pour la peine" ("for reward and for punishment", accompanied with an image of a palm, a flowering branch, and a crown) and "Amour propre" ("self-love," with an image of the sun shining on a flower). Some online articles state that the mirror was made as a wedding gift for Claudia; however, historian Wolfgang Vorwerk suggests that the mirror may have already been in the castle when Philipp took office in 1719.
Maria Sophia never married. At some point, she moved sixty miles away to the town of Bamberg, which runs across seven hills each topped by a church. I’m not sure when she moved, but we do know that her brother Franz Ludwig took office as the town’s Prince-Bishop in 1779. She spent her final years in the care of a convent school, the Institute der Englischen Fräulein. She died in 1796, aged 71, having spent her life doing charity work. History records indicate that she was beloved by the community. Her gravestone, rediscovered in 2019, reads "The noble heroine of Christianity: here she rests after the victory of Faith, ready for transfigured resurrection.”
Two other notes:
Apple orchards are common in Lohr.
Belladonna, which causes paralysis, grows wild in the area. Supporters of the theory connect this to the poison which causes Snow White’s deathlike sleep. It is also an aphrodisiac, explaining the instant love between Snow White and her prince.
Inaccuracies and problems
In my research, I've encountered a few questionable statements that are repeated by many sources.
Claim: Claudia was a harsh stepmother who disliked her husband's children.
This is an exaggeration of Werner Loibl's article. Based on a single letter, Loibl concluded that Claudia was a bossy, self-serving woman who, only months after the wedding, was already using her new husband's position to advance the interests of her old employees and, presumably, her biological children as well.
I'm not a historian, but I feel this is an overly negative reading for just one letter, with lots of jumps in logic to cast Claudia in the worst possible light. How do we know Philipp didn't ask his wife to handle things during his long absences? Even with that, there's little to indicate that she disliked any of her stepchildren, let alone Maria Sophia. I see no evidence that there was any kind of family dysfunction here.
(Remember Werner Loibl, we'll come back to him in a minute.)
Claim: Maria Sophia was forced to flee over the mountains to Bieber after being abandoned or attacked.
This came from one of Lohr's tourist attractions, the Snow White-themed mountain hiking trail. As early as January 1999, the town's website featured a "Snow White" section under its tourism department. This page is written in the first person, narrated by “Maria Sophia... popularly known as Snow White.” Other than the nickname, it begins close to real life by describing her family tree. But it takes a turn when she explains that her father ran Lohr’s mirror manufactory and one day gave a mirror to her stepmother.
"Incidentally, this mirror still hangs in my parents' castle in Lohr a. Main and bears the inscription "Elle brille á la lumiére", roughly translated "She is as beautiful as the light". As you know, my stepmother thought she was particularly beautiful, and when one day - I had grown a bit - the mirror no longer rated my stepmother as the most beautiful in the country, the forester took me (at her behest) for a "Walk" in the forest. We walked out through the Upper Gate and then uphill to where the Rexroth Castle stands today. At the very top, in the deep forest, the forester drew his knife. Then I suspected evil and, full of panic, ran right into the forest and downhill as fast as I could. There was a couple of shots behind me. Full of horror I ran on until, past the glassworks in Reichen Grund, I came to the Lohrbach. Did my evil stepmother actually want to kill me?"
From here on, “Maria Sophia” explains step-by-step how she made her way to the mines, with a laundry list of landmarks (“Towards evening I reached the retention basin of the Bieber mines, the Wiesbüttsee...”). The story concludes by stating that she “found shelter with the seven dwarfs." It adds a link for website visitors to book the hiking trail - a deal which comes with a visit to the museum in "Snow White's family castle," a hotel stay, and a souvenir gift.
This isn't a historical document - it's a hiking guide, as should be obvious from the list of locations. It presents a story with no connection to reality - the Snow White tale with Maria Sophia's name smacked on. This has set the tone for Lohr’s marketing ever since; some mistakes are corrected in modern brochures and materials, but the misleading tone remains, and other sources repeat these blurred lines.
This webpage also includes another commonly-repeated error...
Claim: The motto on the von Erthal mirror is "Elle brille à la lumière" (She shines like the light).
The phrase is reminiscent of the Grimms' 1857 edition of fairytales, in which Snow White is described as "beautiful as the day." However, this phrase does not appear on the "Amour Propre" mirror in the castle. It was a common inscription for other Lohr mirrors in general, accompanied by an image of a pearl in an oyster. There were many other traditional emblems - see this digitized book from 1697, Devises Et Emblemes Anciennes & Modernes tirées des plus celebres Auteurs.
Wolfgang Vorwerk states that the "Amour Propre" mirror was not explicitly tied to the Maria Sophia theory at first. The media probably began describing it as the fairytale mirror sometime between 1994 and 1998 (Vorwerk 2016, p. 6). This may have contributed to the confusion about which mirror is which.
Claim: Lohr mirrors were specially made to echo people's voices through a trick of acoustics.
This seems to be a misunderstanding of the saying that the mirrors spoke. It probably originated with a 2002 news article, reprinted around the world, which called the mirror an “acoustic toy” (Hall).
Claim: Maria Sophia died of belladonna poisoning.
False. This might be confusion with Margarethe von Waldeck, who I'll discuss in my next post.
One thing I have to mention: the timeline here seriously strains credulity. Maria Sophia's father remarried in 1743. The Grimms' first draft dates to 1810, 67 years later. But the Grimms weren't the first to write down the story; that was Johann Musäus's "Richilde," published in 1782. Although this version was an elaborate satirical novella, it's clearly a retelling of the same folktale the Grimms would later transcribe.
Maria Sophia was still alive at this point. If she truly originated the fairytale, or even just influenced it, it would have had no more than 39 years to evolve into its current form and spread across all of Germany.
And there's no evidence that this happened. Thomas Kittel’s 1865 genealogy listed Maria Sophia as one of the more notable von Erthals, giving her one and a half pages of biography. In comparison, some of her siblings are barely mentioned. And yet there's nothing to indicate that she inspired any Snow White-esque legends. Kittel's description gives only the impression of a deeply religious woman with a disability who lived a normal, fulfilling life.
Where did this theory come from?
First, some stage-setting. In 1963, Germany was rocked by a newly released book. Die Wahrheit uber Hansel und Gretel (The Truth about Hansel and Gretel) revealed that the famous fairytale was based on a gruesome true story. The siblings were not children lost in the woods, but a pair of 17th-century bakers from the Spessart forest who brutally murdered a rival for her gingerbread recipe. Photos showed a researcher named Dr. Ossegg unearthing the ruins of the "witch's" home.
Except that in 1964, the real truth came out: it was all a joke. The events were made up, the evidence was forged, and "Ossegg" was actually the author Hans Traxler in a fake mustache. The hoax fooled many, and some believed in it even after the truth was revealed. One disappointed reader tried to report Traxler for fraud.
Flash forward to 1985. In Lohr am Main, a town on the opposite side of the Spessart from the "site" that Traxler had "discovered," a few men started a study group on fabulology. Fabulology was their own newly coined term for "fairytale science." The group consisted of pharmacist Karlheinz Bartels, local museum head Werner Loibl, and shoemaker Helmut Walch. And by "study group" I mean that they hung out at the local wine house together. In a 2015 interview, Bartels explained that they were inspired by the Hansel and Gretel hoax: "We said to each other at the regulars' table [of the wine house] that we need something like that for Lohr."
Although satirical, Traxler's book rested on the premise that the real story could be uncovered by careful deduction, and that's what the "study group" set out to do. As they brainstormed fairytales that could fit the area, Loibl - an expert on glassworking history - thought of Lohr's famously high-quality mirrors. Aha - the evil queen's magic mirror! From there, Bartels pinpointed Maria Sophia.
The fabulology group had started as an in-joke, but it didn't stop there. In 1986, the magazine Schönere Heimat published Bartels' tongue-in-cheek article "War Schneewittchen eine Lohrerin?: Zur Fabulologie des Spessarts" (Was Snow White a Woman of Lohr? On the Fabulology of the Spessart).
To everyone’s surprise, including Bartels's, the article took off. Bartels produced a full 80-page book, which received several editions. Loibl published articles as well, including the one about Claudia's letter. The town embraced this new marketing opportunity. At the book launch in 1990, Loibl announced that a Snow White-focused room would be set up at the Spessart Museum in Lohr Castle; the project was completed in 1992. Artifacts included "Snow White's shoes" - a pair of two-hundred-year-old children's shoes found in the castle - along with the "Amour Propre" mirror. The Snow White Trail that I mentioned previously was also created.
Snow White-themed events are now held at the museum and throughout the town. The town features art installations like the pristine Snow White statue seated on a park bench for selfie opportunities, or the more . . . controversial Snow White by Peter Wittstadt, created in 2014.
The effect was much like the success of the Hansel and Gretel hoax, but in this case, the details weren't fabricated. Obviously Maria Sophia's life did not match up exactly to the fairytale of Snow White, but there was just enough to make an argument. The popularity of the tourist attractions even led to some personal fame and local awards for Bartels.
And it seems Bartels’s attitude fluctuated as all this went on. In 2002 he announced, "We are satisfied that what the Grimm Brothers wrote about was really a documentary of sorts about our region… This all began as a bit of a joke in the local pub 17 years ago. But a lot of energy and research has gone into it since." (Hall)
In 2019, when Maria Sophia’s gravestone was located and put on show in the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg, the joking tone seemed entirely forgotten. As stated by the museum’s director, Holger Kempkens: "There are indications - though we cannot prove it for sure - that Sophia was the model for Snow White. Today when you make a film about a historic person there is also fiction in it. So in this case I think there is a historic basis, but there are also fictional elements."
A modern brochure claims that "one thing should become clear to anyone who reads [this]: Snow White was and is a daughter of Lohr," and that the Spessart Museum houses "[k]ey evidence documenting Snow White's origins." At the end it states in playful fairytale terms, "anyone who is still not convinced by our tale shall be made to pay one gold coin."
The theory made an appearance in Lee Goldberg’s 2008 novel Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, a tie-in novel to the American TV series Monk. The “beautiful baroness” is referred to as "Sophie Margaret von Erthal” and its version of her life story is straight from the Lohr hiking trail advertisement:
“Shortly after Sophie's mother died, her father remarried. The evil stepmother owned one of the famous Lohr "speaking mirrors" and was so envious of Sophie's beauty that she ordered the forest warden to kill the young woman. Sophie fled into the woods and took refuge with miners, who had to be very short to work in the cramped tunnels." (Goldberg, p. 88)
Similarly, actress Ginnifer Goodwin - who played Snow White in the TV show Once Upon a Time - assumed that her character's alter ego of Mary Margaret was inspired by "a real-life story of a princess,” “Maria Sophia Margarita.” This was not intentional by the show’s creators, who didn’t know what she was talking about when she brought it up, but Goodwin still created a new wave of buzz for Bartels’s theory when she mentioned it in an interview. (LA Times, 2012)
One historian, Wolfgang Vorwerk - who's continued the research into Maria Sophia's life - has determinedly reminded people of fabulology's joking roots. In 2016, he wrote to a Lohr newspaper stating that fabulology is not a historical argument. Essentially, says Vorwerk, it's a game of comparing the parallels between fairytale and history, with plenty of "self-mockery" and "a wine-loving wink."
Similarly, the Lohr museum's website suggests that lingering questions - like who the prince was, and where Snow White held her wedding - are riddles "that only Franconian wine can answer."
So that's the Maria Sophia von Erthal theory. There are some fun parallels, but the evidence is weak. The timeline is fishy. Tourism materials have intentionally confused the evidence to make it sound more like Snow White. The only proof for the stepmother's evil nature comes from a historian centuries later who was very interested in making her look like an evil stepmother. And it turns out that the whole thing started as a joke inspired by a famous hoax. Honestly, I just want to take a moment to savor how many deliciously bonkers moments this story includes. When I first saw a picture of the Horror White statue, I almost fell out of my chair.
So, anyway, the evidence. We'll return to this debate, but first there's more ground to cover. Next up: the other "real Snow White," Margarethe von Waldeck.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.