In my last two posts, I’ve discussed two proposed candidates for a historical Snow White. Margarethe von Waldeck was a gorgeous 16th-century countess who may have been poisoned for attracting a prince's attention. Maria Sophia von Erthal was a saintly 18th-century noblewoman whose family's castle featured a magnificent mirror. Much has been made of their similarities to the story of Snow White, the theory being that the Brothers Grimm encountered local stories of one of these women. This theories suffer from a fatal flaw, namely: they are not very good. And that becomes especially apparent when we look at the fairytale itself and the mythology that would have been available to the Brothers Grimm.
In this blog post I will be looking at the following:
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S MOTIFS
When most people think of Snow White, they think of the details provided by the Brothers Grimm. The mirror, the dwarves, etc. Now, I want to note that these details do not make up the story itself. They are just window dressing. Do not get caught up in the window dressing.
But Bartels and Sander really focused on these details, so we'll go through them. There are items like the wild boar or the seven mountains, which are part of nature. There are concepts like Snow White being a princess. There are also more elaborate, colorful tropes, like the magic mirror, which appear going far back into historical literature. It would be impossible to list everything, so I will try to collect a few key works that give an idea of how long they've been around. I'm not arguing that any of these were inspirations for Snow White, just establishing that these ideas were both ancient and immediately familiar for audiences long before the time of our "historical Snow Whites."
The imagery of snow-white skin and blood-red lips - often accompanied by raven-black hair or eyes - is an old description for striking beauty. This description is used for a man in the “The Death of the Sons of Uisnech,” from the Irish Book of Leinster, before 1164. A woman, Blancheflor ("White Flower"), gets the description in Chretien du Troyes' Le Roman de Perceval (c. 1180s), although she is blonde, probably because black was seen as a more masculine hair color at the time. George Peele's 1595 play The Old Wives' Tale features "a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was; as white as snow and as red as blood."
Physical beauty plays a major role in the plot for ATU 709. The snow-white motif appears most prominently in the German versions, and stories in other cultures sometimes keep elements of the name. However, it's actually not that common for ATU 709. Snow is not necessary to a Snow White tale. In some Middle Eastern versions, the heroine has a name along the lines of Pomegranate. The "snow-white skin" motif appears more often in variants of “The Three Citrons” (ATU 408).
A wicked stepmother:
The cruel mother or stepmother is one of the most common fairytale villains. In times with high death rates, it was common for people to remarry, and the idea that a stepparent would favor their own child was very prominent. Medea and Phaedra are troublesome stepmothers in Greek myth. The trope appears in Irish myth (the Children of Lir), Welsh (Culhwch and Olwen) and Norse (Grógaldr). (See Hui et al, 2018, for more examples of cruel stepmothers in medieval Germanic literature.)
For a particularly relevant example: in the 2nd century C.E., Apuleius’s Metamorphoses included a story appropriately titled "The Tale of the Wicked Stepmother". Like Phaedra, the beautiful yet depraved stepmother lusts after her handsome stepson, but he refuses her advances. Now filled with hate, she tries to serve him poisoned wine. When her own son drinks the wine by mistake, she accuses the stepson of his murder. The murder trial doesn't go well for the stepson, and things are looking bleak until a wise physician comes to the rescue. He reveals that not only did he recently sell poison to the stepmother’s servant, but he actually substituted a harmless sleeping potion. Everyone rushes to reopen the sarcophagus of the “murdered” boy just in time to see him awaken. With the truth revealed, the stepmother is exiled and her servant is executed.
It’s not a Snow White story, but it has some striking similarities - the stepmother's hatred towards a beautiful stepchild, the deathlike sleep, a child awakening in their coffin. Note that the servant is tortured by having his feet burned, not unlike the iron shoes in Snow White. The motif of the noble doctor who sabotages the stepmother’s poison is more obscure, but appears in a couple of early Snow White stories, “Cymbeline” and “Richilde.”
The Grimms edited many of their stories, including "Snow White," to replace evil mothers with evil stepmothers, more in keeping with their own ideals. As we’re about to see in a minute, not all ATU 709 stories have stepmothers. Biological mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, aunts, and unrelated women can all play the role of villain.
The magic mirror appears in numerous sources going back to medieval times. Prester John's mirror in the Middle High German Titurel (early 13th century – complete with talking and giving advice), Cambuscan's mirror in The Canterbury Tales (late 14th c.), and Merlin’s mirror in The Faerie Queene (1590) are just a few examples.
Mirrors are common in versions of ATU 709, but so are cases where the jealous villain talks to the moon or a fish. It can also simply be a normal person who comments on the Snow White figure's beauty.
Fairies and spirits of the dead are often subterranean, but dwarves in particular were associated with mining and metalworking. In Germanic mythology, dwarves typically dwell underground. In Norse myth, they're master smiths who create magical weapons, tools and jewelry such as Thor’s hammer or Sif’s hair of living gold. In Middle High German poetry (1200-1500), the Nibelungenlied features the treasure-guarding dwarf Alberich, and Laurin has a dwarf king who abducts a human woman to his kingdom under the mountain.
Cultures across the world believed in mine-dwelling spirits, who were often described as little men or goblins. For instance, kobolds in Germany and knockers in England. These creatures might cause mischief or warn miners of impending collapse. In many areas, food was left as an offering for them. You can see echoes of this in the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus's description of elemental spirits, published in 1566. His earth spirits - pygmies, earth manikins, gnomes and dwarves - glide through solid rock and guard veins of ore.
Other Snow White figures are aided by fairies, family members, cats, dragons, camel drivers, or scholars. Robber bands are especially popular as helpers. Dwarves appear in multiple German versions, and also in an Icelandic version, “Vilfrídr Fairer-than-Vala."
In the Grimm fairytale, the wicked queen attempts to murder Snow White first by strangling her with a stay-lace, then by poisoning her with a comb and finally an apple.
The stay-lace is an article of clothing, and shoes or ribbons are common murder instruments in ATU 709. It brings to mind Greek myth with Medea's cursed robe or the poisoned garment that kills Heracles.
A comb is made up of sharp, needle-like objects. Sharp objects are, by far, the most common cause of enchanted sleep in fairytales - combs, splinters, needles, or spindles. This suggests real-life occurrences like a bite from a venomous snake, or an infection occurring from a cut.
Finally, the apple. This functions a lot like the sharp objects - it is a foreign body, and when it is removed, Snow White awakens. In the Grimm tale, Snow White is not awakened by a kiss, but by being struck so that the apple chunk flies out of her throat. This is similar to other tales where the awakener is not the prince himself, but his mother or another family member. The concept of an apple as an instrument of death would have been immediately familiar to western Christian audiences, who depicted the fruit eaten by Eve as an apple. The fruit is directly tied to death: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."
And in Greek myth, the story of the golden apple of discord connected the fruit with beauty and jealousy. When the apple was presented as a prize for the most beautiful goddess - i.e. the fairest of them all - the contest sparked a bitter argument over who should win, ultimately causing the Trojan War.
The enchanted sleep:
It doesn't necessarily need to be sleep; it can be death, or a state like death, followed by resurrection. Note in particular the 13th-century Old Norse Völsunga saga, where Brynhild the Valkyrie is cast into a deep slumber by a sleeping-thorn (see the aforementioned sharp objects). This myth convinced the Grimms that "Sleeping Beauty" had Germanic origins and belonged in their collection.
EARLY EVIDENCE OF THE TALE'S PLOT
Now let's get into the actual bones of the story. Snow White is categorized as type 709 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type Index, and is widespread in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It's important to note that the Grimms' version is not a "canon" or "main" version of the story, just one unique variant.
Different people have broken the story down to its parts, but the basic gist is this: an older woman becomes jealous of the beautiful heroine. The heroine is forced into exile, possibly spared by a sympathetic executioner. She finds a home with allies who give her shelter. The older woman discovers this and successfully kills her, or at least puts her into a coma. The heroine's body is placed on display, but then she is revived and gets married.
Graham Anderson suggested that ATU 709 can be traced to the myth of Chione ("Snow"). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god Mercury causes Chione to fall asleep so he can rape her; Apollo, disguised as an old woman, does the same. Chione gives birth to twins, but when she boasts of her beauty, she is killed by the goddess Diana. In my opinion, Anderson has some interesting points but takes too many leaps in logic. For one thing, he puts too much emphasis on the heroine's name relating to snow. I think it's a mistake to identify Chione as a Snow White figure.
Other stories like The Lai of Eliduc (late 12th century) have also been compared to Snow White, and Andersen makes an intriguing case for The Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes (pre-2nd century), but I'm going to keep this short by focusing on those that have the clearest plot similarities.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (1623) features a princess named Imogen. She is very beautiful, described in terms of white and red (she is a "fresh lily,/ And whiter than the sheets!" with lips like "Rubies unparagoned"). Her wicked stepmother tries to poison her, but a helpful doctor secretly swaps the poison with a sleeping potion. For unrelated reasons, Imogen flees into the forest, where she is given shelter by a group of men. She eventually takes the sleeping potion believing it's medicine. The men think she's dead and sadly lay her body out in state. She later reawakens, and at the end is joyfully reunited with her companions and her husband.
Some scholars argue that this is too fragmented and Cymbeline is more inspired by other works. It's true there are a lot of influences, both historical and literary, in this very busy play. However, I don't think we can ignore its core similarities to ATU 709. Cymbeline combines many folktale tropes, and we could be looking at echoes of an English Snow White story here.
“The Young Slave,” by Giambattista Basile (1634) has similarities to Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and stories of the "Supplanted Bride" tale type. The heroine, Lisa, is raised by fairies but cursed to die via a comb stuck in her hair, and her body is placed within seven nested crystal coffins. Her uncle keeps her in a hidden room. Her uncle's wife finds her and, jealous of her beauty, knocks the comb out of her hair - accidentally awakening her in the process. The aunt forces Lisa to work as a slave until the uncle finds out and sets things right.
“Sun, Moon, and Talia,” also from Basile, similarly resonates with Snow White. Talia apparently dies by means of a splinter under her fingernail. A king finds her in the woods and rapes her. She gives birth to twins who suck the splinter out of her finger, waking her in the process. The king's jealous wife wants Talia executed and tries to have the twins cooked and eaten. A sympathetic cook secretly hides the children and substitutes lamb meat. When the king finds out what's going on, he executes the queen and marries Talia. "Sleeping Beauty" by Charles Perrault (1697) is a softened adaptation where the rape is omitted and the rival wife is changed to the king's mother.
Interestingly, "jealous queen" figures only appear in the final acts of these Italian and French tales. They are not the cause of the enchanted sleeps. Snow White makes more narrative sense, and modern renditions of Sleeping Beauty almost always cut the second half of the story.
Syair Bidasari (18th century?): In this Malay poem, a queen becomes fearful that another woman will catch the king’s eye, and sends out spies to seek anyone more beautiful than her. They tell her of the lovely young Bidasari. Learning that the girl’s life is connected to a fish, the jealous queen takes the fish out of the water. This causes Bidasari to seemingly die during the day, only awakening at night. For safety, her parents hide her at a remote location in the desert. However, the king discovers Bidasari's body and falls in love with her. When she’s conscious at night, she tells him her story, and he returns the fish and takes her as his new queen. The former queen is left in solitude to repent.
The surface details may be different, but it completes the core plot of Snow White in a way that none of the previous examples do. Similar tales have since been collected in India and Egypt.
The poem’s date of origin is uncertain; the oldest surviving manuscript is dated 1814, the oldest mention of the title is from 1807, and it is probably older. Another poem of this genre was theorized to have been composed sometime after 1650. This story is one we know can't have influenced the Grimms, but it shows an independent strand of the tale from a completely different part of the world around the same time.
The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter (1710s-1730s?): This Russian text has been discovered only recently, and is tentatively dated to the early 18th century. The role of the magic mirror is played by a beggar who praises the princess's beauty. Her jealous stepmother orders her killed, and the servants bring her severed finger as proof of her death. The princess takes refuge at the home of nine brothers, keeps house for them, and slays a serpent to rescue them (!). The stepmother learns of her survival and sends a poisoned shirt which kills her. The brothers build a tomb for her and also die. A prince finds her body, falls in love with her, and takes her home, where his mother removes the poisoned shirt and revives her. The brothers are resurrected, the prince and princess celebrate their marriage, and the stepmother is punished.
I still need to investigate further, but this could be competition with Syair Bidasari for the earliest full version of Snow White discovered so far. (Kurysheva 2018)
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus (1782): This novella appeared in Musaus’ Volksmärchen der Deutschen, a collection of literary folktale retellings. The vain Richilde becomes violently jealous of her lovely stepdaughter Blanca ("White"). She makes three attempts to kill her with a poisoned apple, soap, and a letter. However, her apothecary has secretly made the poison nonlethal and the gifts only leave Blanca unconscious and mistaken for dead. Her coffin has a glass window that allows people to look in at her, and she is rescued by a knight who heals her with a holy relic. Richilde is punished by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. There’s even the rhyming chant to a mirror:
"Mirror white, mirror bright,
Mirror, let me have a sight,
Of the fairest girl in Brabant!"
It feels surprisingly modern; it’s told from the wicked stepmother Richilde’s point of view, and the magical elements are mostly downplayed or given scientific explanations. For instance, Blanca is attended by court dwarfs (real people with dwarfism, forced to serve as royal attendants and jesters).
From "Richilde" we can deduce that the story of Snow White, in more or less its modern form, was already well-known in Germany by the 1780s, enough for Musaus to write an elaborate, satirical version from the villain's point of view.
The Tale of the Old Beggars (1795): a Russian folktale published anonymously. This is very close to "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter." Some differences: the heroine, Olga, is a merchant's daughter rather than a princess. Olga doesn't kill a dragon, but is instead possibly the most clueless Snow White ever - she tells her stepmother she’s alive by sending her some pierogis. The poisoned shirt is studded with pearls. The grieving robber-brothers build a crystal tomb for Olga and die, but are not resurrected. The conclusion with the prince and his mother is the same.
The Beautiful Sophie and Her Envious Sisters (1808), by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. This version came from Silesia, possibly with Polish influence. (Kawan 2005, 238-239). It features a magic mirror and a glass coffin. The villains are the heroine's two evil sisters, who try to kill her with a hair ribbon and an apple. Instead of seven dwarves, there's one little old lady.
Snow White (1809), a play by Albert Ludwig Grimm (no relation to the Brothers Grimm). Here we have an evil stepmother and stepsister. Snow White takes refuge in a glass mountain with a whole kingdom of dwarves, and is given a poisoned fig.
And, finally, the Grimms' "Little Snow-White." The Grimms had a strikingly different goal from authors like Basile or Musaus. Rather than using folklore as fodder for a unique literary creation, they set out to preserve the original oral tales. Their "Snow White" was a mixture of stories from at least three informants - Marie Hassenpflug, Ferdinand Siebert, and Heinrich Leopold Stein. Christine Shojaei Kawan states that the Brothers Grimm considered Snow White one of the most popular fairytales. (Kawan 2005, 238-239).
The Grimms' 1810 draft - presumably the closest to the first versions they collected - has some startling differences from the tale we know. Snow White is a blonde with eyes as black as ebony, and the villain is her biological mother. Her hair was changed to black by the time they published their work in 1812. Starting with the 1819 edition, the mother was changed to a stepmother. This change may have been to soften the tale for children, but also remember that the Grimms collected and combined many versions. Their notes mentioned variants with stepmothers or adoptive mothers. In one version there's a talking dog named Mirror rather than a literal mirror.
The Grimms published many other fairytales which overlap with Snow White, including “Cinderella” (evil stepmother), “The Juniper Tree” (evil stepmother murders her snow-white/blood-red stepson), “The Three Ravens” (the girl’s arrival in the ravens’ home), “Briar Rose” (enchanted sleep), and “The Glass Coffin” (rescue of girl from a glass coffin).
HISTORICAL FIGURES IN FAIRYTALES
We do have many cases of real people and places that either inspired legends or were adopted into legends. For instance, Caliph Harun al-Rashid appears in many of the stories in The Thousand and One Nights. Richard the Lionheart is given a Melusine-esque fairy mother in a 14th century romance. And Bertalda of Laon, Charlemagne's mother, starred in a Goose Girl-like story from manuscripts around the 13th century.
Most of these stories were recorded long after the original people died. However, it is entirely possible for legends to spread while the subject is still alive. For a modern example, in 1936, a Newfoundland girl named Lucy Harris went missing and was found alive in the woods eleven days later. Her story quickly evolved into a tale of fairy abduction. By 1985, 49 years later, it was well-known across Newfoundland, but was still closely tied to the name and location. When folklorist Barbara Rieti investigated, she was directed straight to Harris’s then-current residence. Even more important: Rieti noted that Harris’s story was boosted by radio and newspapers. Comparable stories with similar timeframes, that didn't receive media attention, stayed within small local communities.
WHY THE HISTORICAL THEORIES JUST DON'T WORK
The proposed "historical Snow Whites” are too late to have sparked the worldwide tale of ATU 709. By the time of Maria Sophia, there were strong alternate traditions in Russia and Malaysia. Margarethe and her family were earlier, beating out Shakespeare by a hundred years, but I would say she was also too late; we're talking about an incredibly widespread tradition of stories, with all kinds of variations far beyond anything we find in the Margarethe theory.
Instead, the theory must be that these women influenced local German versions of ATU 709. That is, they were the source of colorful local details like the poisoned apple and the helpful dwarves. But this still isn't supported by the facts.
There is not a single unique characteristic of the German Snow White that can be traced to either of these women. The best they can offer is faint coincidence. Deadly poisoned apples? There were orchards in the area. Helpful dwarf miners? There were mines in the area. A trip across seven mountains? You got it - there were mountains in the area. These theories focus on the shallowest details of the story rather than on the core plot, and they don’t even do that very well.
The Maria Sophia theory totally collapses at the first sign of scrutiny. Even if we ignore that this theory started as a joke by three guys in a pub, the timeline doesn't work. As said before, there were less than 40 years for her life story to diffuse into the German fairytale and her real name to be forgotten. Compare the case of Lucy Harris: 50 years, widespread media attention, and her name and location stayed inextricably tied to the story.
The Margarethe theory has two small advantages over Maria Sophia. First: the three Margarethes were born in the 1500s, giving a bit more time for their lives to be mythicized and for storytellers to combine them into one person - but still not a lot of time. Second: Sander's theory was apparently spurred by a local claim that Snow White's dwarves were inspired by the Bergfreiheit mines. But this still doesn't work. The concept of subterranean dwarves is ancient, far older than the Bergfreiheit mines. Ultimately the Margarethe theory falls prey to the same problem as the Maria Sophia theory: this is just a marketing stunt with nothing real to back it up. Both Sanders and Bartels went about their theorizing backwards. They looked for historical noblewomen from specific areas who could fit the story, and then performed any contortions necessary to cram their histories into the shape of the Grimm fairytale. By their logic, any woman could be the real Snow White as long as she had a stepmother and someone once ate an apple within a 100-mile radius of her.
There have been other theories about historical Snow Whites. An author named Theodor Ruf, inspired by Bartels, jokingly suggested that Snow White could have been a different woman from Lohr: a medieval woman named Agnes, from the family of the Counts of Rieneck. But this never took off in the same way - that is, it was never picked up as a marketing tool.
Folklore academics have reacted to the "historical" theories with skepticism or outright scorn. Folklore professor Donald Haase called the historical figure theories “pure speculation and not at all convincing.” Heidi Anne Heiner, who runs the SurLaLune site, points out that “it is always dangerous to assign fairy tales to actual historical personages,” comparing the many proposed historical Bluebeards. Christine Shojaei Kawan dismissed Bartels's theory entirely, knowing that it was a joke (Kawan 2005).
Rather than these women inspiring the fairytale, it's the other way around. Snow White, at least in the past 30-40 years, has come to influence the way we tell the stories of Maria Sophia and Margarethe.
I do want to focus on one thing I've discovered: German storytellers had all the elements of "Snow White" at their fingertips long before Maria Sophia or even Margarethe were born. I'm also delighted that even now we are still discovering old manuscripts like "The Tale of a Tsar and His Daughter" which could shed further light on the history of the fairytale. Ultimately, I'd guess that "Snow White" is far older than we realize.
OTHER BLOG POSTS IN SERIES
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.