There is a problem with sorting folktales. As Christine Goldberg put it: "Folktales present a paradox. Theoretically, tale types should stay separate; in fact, sometimes they do not.”
The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Tale Type Index, created to sort fairytales by types, is very useful but is still a numbering system for something that was never meant to be numbered. Oral tales often overlap and blend, and some stories seem to pair together more easily and often. Linda Dégh believed that there might be a common origin for some tales that frequently interwove - she was talking specifically about tale types 403 (The Black and the White Bride), 408 (The Three Oranges), 425 (The Search for the Lost Husband), 706 (The Maiden Without Hands) and 707 (The Three Golden Sons). As she put it, "their variants cross each other constantly and... their blendings are more common than their keeping to their separate type outlines." (emphasis added)
I think ATU 709, Snow White, may be a neighboring member of this story family. The origins of Snow White are actually a bit of a stumbling block. There are so many overlaps with other tales. Christine Goldberg again:
"Variants of AT 709 incorporate motifs that also appear in other tales: the child taken into the forest, as in “Hansel and Gretel”; the heroine put to sleep by a pin prick, as in “Sleeping Beauty”; the treacherous teacher or the jealous sisters, as in AT 510-511 (“Cinderella”); the house in the woods, as in “The Seven Ravens.” Such admixtures have troubled folklorists since Ernst Boklen’s Sneewittchenstudien (1910, 1915).” (Goldberg 105)
Some folklorists seem dismissive towards the Snow White tale, characterizing it as a recent and shoddy patchwork. The collector Joseph Jacobs, also citing Boklen, described it as "obviously a late product combining many motifs from different, more primitive, or at least earlier formulæ." Sigrid Schmidt also leaned towards this amalgam theory and suggested that Snow White is classed under Other Tales of the Supernatural in the ATU index “because it does not fit properly into the Tales of Magic.” (I.e., number 709 is much farther down the ATU list than the fairy tales that seem most similar.)
This is a chicken-or-the-egg question for me. Is Snow White a late hodgepodge? Or is it simply closely related to these other tales?
One question is a little easier - Sigrid Schmidt's passing mention that Snow White is in a weird spot in the ATU numbering system. In fact, it is located smack in the middle of several similar tales about persecuted maidens. I think this is obscured by the fact that most people judge it by the Brothers Grimm version.
I've previously discussed Snow White's similarities and frequent overlaps with ATU 451, "The Brothers Turned into Birds/The Maiden in Search of Her Brothers." The scene of Snow White finding the dwarves’ house is exactly like the girl finding her bird-brothers' house in "The Seven Ravens." “The Twelve Wild Ducks” begins with the same opening as the Grimms’ Snow White. The Snow White-esque story of “Udea and Her Seven Brothers,” which has sometimes been subdivided as ATU 709A, begins with the brothers driven out when their sister is born, as happens in many bird-brother tales.
Now I'm going to look at Snow White's similarities to the stories of persecuted maidens, located in the early 700s of the ATU system. These stories are often characterized by the heroine going through two periods of persecution: first in her family home, and later in her husband's home.
The Maiden without Hands (ATU 706)
Persecution of heroine: A man promises his daughter to the Devil. Or tries to force his daughter to marry him. Essentially, there’s some kind of drama or jealousy.
Banishment and disabling: This culminates in the girl being mutilated (in the most famous versions, her hands are cut off) and fleeing into the wilderness.
Marriage: A king finds her in the wilderness and marries her.
Persecution of heroine and her children: While he is away, she gives birth to a child. However, an enemy (often someone involved in the hand-chopping incident) frames her for murdering her child or giving birth to a monster, and fakes an order of execution from the king. The girl flees into the wilderness with her child, where her mutilation is healed.
Reunion: The king finds her and their family is reunited.
The Three Golden Children (ATU 707)
Marriage: A king marries a girl who has said she will bear beautiful children.
Banishment/Persecution of heroine and her children: She gives birth to the promised children - often two or three of them - but her jealous sisters (or rival co-wives?) replace the babies with animals and accuse her of infidelity. The queen is imprisoned or banished. Her children are cast into a river or killed, but either escape death or are resurrected.
Reunion: The children return and reveal the truth. Rivals punished, family reunited.
Our Lady's Child (ATU 710)
Persecution: A girl is adopted by the Virgin Mary (probably a stand-in for a pre-Christian goddess), but disobeys one of her commands.
Banishment and disabling: The girl is cast out into the woods and left unable to speak.
Marriage: A king finds her in the wilderness and marries her.
Persecution of heroine and her children: She gives birth to children, but her godmother takes them away and makes it look like she murdered them.
Reunion: When the girl is about to be executed for the murders, the godmother relents and returns her children and power of speech. The family is reunited.
(This plotline is extremely similar to ATU 451, “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds.” It's just missing the brothers.)
Snow White (ATU 709)
Persecution: A queen becomes jealous of her stepdaughter and attempts to have her killed.
Banishment and disabling: The girl flees into the wilderness. She finds shelter with some friendly men, but her stepmother attacks multiple times and is eventually successful in putting her into an enchanted sleep.
Marriage: A prince finds her, awakens her and marries her.
These stories frequently feature the motif of “The Calumniated Wife,” where a woman is falsely accused and punished. (This also shows up in "The Brothers Turned into Birds," already mentioned as a close neighbor to Snow White.) The villain is often a woman motivated by jealousy: sisters, mothers, stepmothers, mothers-in-law. There are hints here of older stories about polygamy and rival wives. I think polygamy, rather than mother-daughter rivalry, may be the true root of the Snow White tale. Verrier Elwin - who collected numerous Indian examples of ATU 707 with rival wives as the villains - suggested that this story was intended as a moral tale about the dangers of polygamy, and thus didn’t appear in Europe. This ignores that there very much are European stories about polygamy - like the early Snow White tale "Sun, Moon, and Talia," and even some positive portrayals of polygamy in Celtic Snow Whites.
Often, the heroine is disabled in some way by the time the king first meets her. The heroine of “The Maiden without Hands” is physically mutilated, but made whole by the conclusion of the story. The heroine of “Our Lady’s Child” - as in “The Brothers Turned into Birds” - becomes unable to verbally communicate, and regains the ability to speak at the climax. Snow White falls into a deathlike sleep and is later awakened.
The Grimms’ Snow White story does feature the heroine exiled to the wilderness, but lacks the “Persecution of heroine and her children” segment. However, other versions frequently include it. In "Sun, Moon, and Talia," after the king awakens Talia and brings her and her twin children home, his first wife tries to murder and eat them. The Greek "Maroula and the Mother of Eros" runs through the Snow White plot of jealousy and a sleeping curse, and then the heroine Maroula is framed for the murder of her twins and cast out. However, she meets a monk who restores her children to life, and her husband finds her again. Grimmer versions follow the Calumniated Wife pattern, but lack the resurrection for the heroine's children - such as in "The Magic Mirror," from Romania, and "The Magician's Mirror," from Lesbos.
Scottish Gaelic tales frequently show overlap between "Snow White" and "The Girl without Hands," as seen in "Lasair Gheug, the King of Ireland's Daughter." Here, the heroine's mother frames her for murder and forces her to swear an oath of silence, followed by the heroine being cast out and having three fingers chopped off. She gets married and endures a sleeping curse. In the end, she works out a way to tell her story without breaking her oath.
The "Calumniated Wife" motif also shows up in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline, which has elements of both "Snow White" and the tale type “The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity.” Princess Imogen is falsely accused of adultery, and her husband tries to have her assassinated. But the killer takes pity on her and helps her flee, after which Imogen takes refuge in the woods and accidentally takes a sleeping potion sent by her wicked stepmother. Charlotte Artese suggests that Shakespeare noticed similarities between “Snow White” and “The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity,” which both include the exile of the persecuted woman, and intentionally combined the two stories in Cymbeline. This is the most likely option, based on what we know about Shakespeare. However, there are some ATU 709 tales where the plot kicks off when the Snow White figures is accused of infidelity - namely Alexander Afanasyev's "The Magic Mirror" from Russia, and "Rumanah," an Egyptian Hebrew tale. And remember the Scottish Gaelic "Lasair Gheug." It’s entirely possible that Shakespeare knew a British version of ATU 709 where the heroine is falsely accused of some crime. That would have been even closer to the Wager stories.
I leave this post with a few final thoughts. The ATU numbering for Snow White actually makes perfect sense because it is grouped with other tales of persecuted, exiled maidens. This is even clearer when you look at similar tales outside the Brothers Grimm. Studying these tales, it’s impossible not to notice how often Snow White stories intersect with tales of false accusations, forced silences, and lost children - and, eventually, the chance for the heroine to tell her tale and receive justice. There is something interesting in the way that Afanasyev's "The Magic Mirror," "Lasair Gheug," the Italian "The Young Slave," and the Malay "Syair Bidasari" - among others - all reach a resolution when the Snow White-like heroine is able to find a way to tell her story despite the villain’s power over her. Afanasyev's is particularly fun here, with the heroine smacking people with a ladle.
Overlapping and merging is what folktales do, and some in particular seem to naturally pair together. Although there are still many questions about its history, I don't see how this indicates that Snow White should be considered a later story.
Other Blog Posts
The First Snow White Retelling
Some time ago, a book of collected fairy tale retellings was published. Anyone who picked up this book would have found a nontraditional version of Snow White. The author had written it from the wicked stepmother’s point of view, telling the story of her life. It was also historical fiction, the magical elements replaced with scientific explanations. This is nothing too out of the ordinary for modern readers. This description suits books such as Gregory Maguire’s Mirror, Mirror (2003) or Donna Jo Napoli’s Dark Shimmer (2015).
But the retelling I’m talking about was published in 1782.
“Richilde,” by Johann Karl August Musäus, appeared in the first volume of his collection Volksmärchen der Deutschen (Folktales of the Germans). Musäus wrote that he collected these stories from the German folk, but this is not the style of the Brothers Grimm and later folklorists; instead it’s more of the highly literary style of Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile. It is also the first existing example that we have of the German fairy tale of Snow White, published a generation before the Brothers Grimm got to it. It’s definitely a hefty tale, almost more like a novelette, and the English translation I found was written in older language that takes some getting used to for modern readers. But its ideas and themes fit in strikingly well with modern renditions of the story.
Snow White researcher Christine Shojaei Kawan at one point considered this the earliest literary version of the tale, but later apparently had second thoughts as she claims that it doesn't fit with the folktale all that well and can't be considered authentic. There is, for instance, no scene where the Snow White figure has to flee into the wilderness. I would have to agree with Kawan that this is a retelling more than it is a straightforward fairytale. But what a retelling!
Honestly, Richilde does not work as a standalone piece. It makes much more sense when understood as a reimagining from the villain’s point of view. From studying "Richilde," it’s clear that Snow White was already very well-known - proving the Brothers Grimm were right when they considered it one of the most popular German fairy tales. As is common for fairy tales, we got elaborate literary adaptations before anyone set to the task of transcribing the original folktales. The fairy tales of Perrault and Basile and the French conteuses are very similar cases, and one of the Grimms' tasks was actually to preserve the folk tales before they could be forgotten and lost in adaptation.
But back to the story of Richilde. The tale begins with her birth as the much-wanted child of the Count and Countess of Brabant. She grows up beautiful and, due to realizing from the magic mirror that she’s the fairest girl in the land, extremely vain. It explains how she meets her husband: needing to marry, she asks the mirror to show her the most handsome man in the land. Problem is, he's already married - but not for long, as he is quite flattered by this glamorous younger woman's attentions, and divorces his wife to be with her.
The plotline stays mostly with Richilde, leading to some hilarity. When Richilde realizes that her husband’s abandoned daughter Blanca has grown into the fairest maiden in Brabant, she arranges to have her poisoned. But then Blanca keeps popping up alive again, with no explanation, and it’s driving Richilde nuts as she scrambles to fix the situation and figure out what went wrong. I love this scenario so much.
There is a mysteriously powerful mirror, created through the mysterious and wise arts of Albertus Magnus (a real historical figure and the subject of many legends), and given to the young Richilde as a gift. The mirror doesn’t talk, but does show images when a rhyming chant is said. In a particularly nice touch, the more evil Richilde’s actions become, the more it rusts until it’s ruined. It’s clearly a magic mirror, complete with moral judgment, but there is at least some handwaving about how it could be Magnus’s practical scientific arts.
There are three murder attempts via poison, and the first is an apple or pomegranate with one half poisoned. So it does seem that the poisoned fruit was particularly deep-rooted in German folklore. Although Kawan complained that Richilde fails to hit the correct beats of the full folktale, this is where we have the sympathetic executioner, the equivalent of the fairy tale’s huntsman: Richilde’s Jewish court physician, Sambul, who is tasked with creating these poisoned gifts.
Here, the story is surprisingly tolerant for an 18th-century German book, or at least subverts antisemitic expectations. Sambul ultimately turns out to be the real hero of the story. I should be clear that there are still antisemitic elements. It feels especially uncomfortable that Sambul is the victim of the most violence in the story. But as the story nears its ending, it is revealed that Sambul has a strong conscience and has been working against Richilde all along even at the risk of his own life. He substituted harmless sedatives for the poisons, so that Blanca appeared to die but actually woke up a while later. And at the very end, the focus is not on Blanca and her husband’s wedded bliss, but on Sambul being rewarded and going on to live in happiness and prosperity.
There is an equivalent to the Grimms’ dwarfs: Blanca, who has been consigned to one of her father’s castles, is attended by court dwarfs. This is another historical twist. These are not mystical woodland or subterranean creatures, but ordinary people, and many historical nobles employed court dwarfs. However, there is still a blurring of lines here. The court dwarfs are apparently skilled smiths and craftsmen, whipping up a coffin with a window - the equivalent of the fairy tale’s glass coffin - and the red-hot iron shoes for Richilde. This hints that these characters were inspired by mythical dwarfs, who were metalworkers in Nordic myth.
There is a handsome prince figure: Gottfried of Ardenne, a young nobleman who comes across Blanca’s castle, hears her story, and is at the right time to bring forth a holy relic in an attempt to ward off sorcery just as she wakes up.
Richilde attends their wedding having been tricked into thinking that she is the bride, which is a neat little explanation for why she’d be there, and shows her all-encompassing vanity. Before the ceremony, Gottfried tells her of a woman who murdered her daughter out of jealousy, and asks her what punishment is suitable. Richilde, bored and annoyed by what she sees as a delay to her wedding, says that the mother should be forced to dance in burning iron shoes - and then Blanca appears and Richilde realizes to her terror that she has just named her own fate.
This scenario of the villain being tricked into choosing their own fate is a classic one, also seen in the fairy tale of “The Goose Girl.” A Danish oral variant of Snow White, "Snehvide," also ends with the stepmother choosing her own execution. In Richilde’s case, her punishment is surprisingly merciful. Instead of dancing until she dies, as in the Grimms’ Snow White, she is only left with burns and blisters on her feet, and people actually put a salve on her feet before throwing her into the dungeon.
The Brothers Grimm’s first draft of the Snow White tale was pretty different from the one we currently have - biological mother as villain, biological father as rescuer and breaker of the curse. In many ways, the modern version more closely resembles Richilde.
Syair Bidasari is a story with many parallels to the Brothers Grimm story of Snow White and the worldwide tale type of ATU 709. A syair is a traditional Malay poetry form, and Bidasari is the name of the heroine. Going through it piece by piece, we find many things which seem very different on the surface from Snow White.
We don’t know the date of origin or the author. The oldest extant manuscript dates to the 1810s, with the oldest surviving reference from the previous decade. A similar syair was dated to the 1650s, so this may very well be one of the earliest versions of Snow White that we have today. Julian Millie found that the story was known throughout Southeast Asia, ranging from Indonesia to the Philippines. It was adapted into music and theater, and translations were published in English, German and Russian.
Syair Bidasari is an epic poem with intricate language and structure, and it’s been impossible for translators to do it full justice in English. It also keeps going after Bidasari marries the king. See, she was a lost princess adopted as an infant by a kindly merchant. After her wedding, her biological family tracks her down, and there are endless reunions and celebrations and a long digression where her brother slays a monster and marries the princess it was holding captive. (This kind of elaborate runtime is not unfamiliar for old literary fairy tales; compare the original French novella that was Beauty and the Beast, which takes a deep dive into fairy politics and Beauty’s Surprise Secret Backstory as a lost princess. Adaptations immediately dropped that part, with good reason.)
Bidasari is not a folktale, but it does seem based on oral tradition. And we can see traces of that tradition continuing in folklore collected much later - in the Indian tales “Princess Aubergine” and “Sodewa Bai,” and the Jewish Egyptian story “The Wonder Child.” These stories vary in some details. “Sodewa Bai” even has a bit of a Cinderella motif, with the prince finding her because of her tiny slipper. But they generally stick to the same plot - this very specific strand of ATU 709.
One of the most intriguing differences from the European Snow White is how the death-sleep works. European heroines are usually invaded in some way, a foreign body intruding on hers - a bite of apple stuck in Snow White’s throat, a splinter in Talia’s finger. It must be removed in order to awaken her. But in these Asian and Middle-Eastern versions, something is stolen from the heroine and must be returned to her.
And here we have the motif of the removable soul. Bidasari’s soul is inside a golden fish, which is nested inside two precious boxes and kept in a pond in her family’s garden. Aubergine’s life is tied to a magical necklace, hidden inside a tiny box, inside a bumble bee, inside a red and green fish. In “Sodewa Bai” the heroine is born with a necklace, in “The Wonder Child” with a glowing jewel; if she doesn’t have her magical item with her, she’ll fall asleep. In all of these cases, the object is worn as a necklace.
This resembles ATU 302, "The Giant who had no heart in his body." In these stories, the owner of the removable soul is typically a villain who has nested his heart or life force inside several different things, sometimes animals or insects, sometimes and egg. The hero must seek out the life source to destroy it.
It seems like the hero being the one with the removable soul may be common in Indian tales. In "Chundun Rajah" (from the same collector who published "Sodewa Bai"), it's a man who suffers the daily death when his soul-necklace is stolen.
Is the soul-necklace in these stories a unique folk tradition variant? Or was the legend affected by the fame of the epic poem adaptation Syair Bidasari? I do find it intriguing that it made it all the way into Jewish storytelling in Egypt.
A major theme in these stories is the rivalry between two wives. Bidasari faces Queen Lila Sari, who is driven by her fear that the king will marry someone else and lose interest in her. You can feel for Lila Sari at first, when her devoted husband states that he would take another wife if he found someone more beautiful. However, then she turns to torture and murder. (Bidasari, in contrast, holds no deep resentment towards Lila Sari and is content to be one of several wives.)
The Punjabi tale of “Princess Aubergine” gets even more horrifying. When the queen tries to magically force Aubergine to confess where her life is kept, Aubergine claims that it is tied to the queen’s son - and the queen promptly murders her own offspring. This continues until the queen has killed all of her own children. Aubergine is attempting to shield herself by appealing to the queen’s maternal instincts and humanity, but the queen has none - weeping afterwards only because she’s enraged that Aubergine still lives.
There are particularly strong similarities between “Princess Aubergine,” “Sodewa Bai,” and the 17th-century Italian “Sun, Moon and Talia,” which is also close to Snow White - although the plot is reversed and fragmented, with the enchanted sleep plot wrapped up before the contest with the jealous queen. In all three stories, the villain is an older first wife, and the heroine gives birth to the king's child in her sleep. There's an unspoken focus on fertility. This is especially clear with Talia, who gives birth to twins, while the queen trying to kill her is childless. In “Princess Aubergine,” the queen has seven sons, but she murders them all, effectively becoming anti-fertile.
Here, we're starting to see a particular theme becoming prominent - and I want to compare this to what we know about Snow White's villain.
A STEPMOTHER OR A RIVAL WIFE?
Maria Tatar examined the Snow White tale in The Fairest of Them All: Snow White and 21 Tales of Mothers and Daughters, from the premise that the story is inherently about a rivalry between a beautiful maiden and her cruel mother: a story not only about beauty and aging, but about family dynamics at their most dysfunctional. However, quite a few of the stories Tatar collects are not about mothers and daughters at all. At one point, she notes of Chinese tales that "it is something of a challenge to find stories directly representing mother-daughter conflict" (p. 165).
Searching for ancient versions of "Snow White," Graham Anderson wrote that "[c]lose family tensions tend to be toned down in the romances, and their role supplied by external rivals instead" (p. 53). Dropping the "requirement" that Snow White stories must include a wicked mother allowed Anderson to open up the playing field to more stories. But this is begging the question. Who says that close family tension is an inherent part of the folktale? What if the wicked mother is the newer version?
We can actually track the development of some Snow White-like tales where it does seem like this is the case: by changing the character relationships, a story of bigamy is transformed into a story of more general jealousy. Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" is an adaptation of "Sun, Moon, and Talia" where, instead of a rival wife, the evil queen is the king's mother. The villain is also the prince's mother in "The Wonder Child," published in the 1990s, and the prince's stepmother in a 1965 film adaptation of Bidasari.
In "Snow White," of course, the villain is a mother (or stepmother) who feels threatened by her daughter's superior beauty. But even in the German versions, this isn't so straightforward as it seems at first glance. In the Grimms' earliest draft, titled "Snow White, or the Unfortunate Child" (the one where Snow White is blonde), not only is the villain Snow White's biological mother, but her father is the one who rescues her. He discovers the glass coffin, grieves over his daughter's "death," and causes her to be woken (he has doctors in his entourage, fortunately). At the end Snow White marries a previously unmentioned prince, and the queen is executed at their wedding.
In another variant from the Grimms' notes, the story begins with a count and countess riding through the woods when they encounter the lovely heroine; the count takes her into the carriage with him and the countess becomes instantly jealous. In the earliest versions, the king is an important character, but in the most famous version he has been almost completely erased from the story. Still, commentators have suggested that the magic mirror is a stand-in for the now-absent king, judging between the beauty of his wife and daughter.
In stories like these, we start to see a different side to the Snow White tale type: it's not about jealousy over beauty in general, but a contest for the affection of one specific man. In the German "Richilde" (1782), the villain first seduces Blanca's father away from his wife, and then attempts to seduce the Prince Charming figure who's in love with Blanca. Further afield, in "The Hunter and His Sister," a Dagur tale from Mongolia, two women grow jealous of their husband lavishing attention on his sister.
And I'm not even getting into the apparent doubling of the jealous mother figure in other tales. In the Italian "The Young Slave" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers" and the Scottish "Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree," the heroine's mother puts her into a death-sleep, and the heroine's lover (or uncle) takes her home only for his mother or wife to awaken her via jealousy or curiosity.
Going further afield again: in a search for "Snow White" tales in Africa, Sigrid Schmidt found many tales which showed marks of colonizing European influence, and even some late tales which were directly derived from the Brothers Grimm. Schmidt suggested that a purer African parallel to "Snow White" can be found in the tale type "The Beautiful Girl." It is not the same tale, but its similarities bear noticing.
These stories follow a young, innocent girl who is remarkably beautiful. The other local girls become jealous - perhaps especially when a man proposes marriage to her even though she's still too young, or when a group of herdboys point her out as the loveliest. The other girls take her out into the wilderness, where they trap her and leave her for dead. She is later rescued. There is no prince in this story, nor is there a death-sleep, but Schmidt argues that the Beautiful Girl goes through a metaphorical death before being rescued. Also, Schmidt did find versions in which the Beautiful Girl is murdered and later resurrected.
Notably, there is no familial relationship between the heroine and the villains. Also, the Beautiful Girl is rescued because people hear her singing (sometimes even in versions where she's dead). Compare this to Syair Bidasari, where Bidasari is able to awaken during the night and tell the king her story.
Syair Bidasari and these other Indian or Middle Eastern tales have their own elements which are quite different from European tales of type 709. Most notable is the consistent motif of the magical necklace containing the heroine's life. However, by comparing and contrasting these with European variants, I suspect we can get a hint of what an ancient version of Snow White may have looked like.
What if the most ancient versions of Snow White were something closer to Syair Bidasari - a story where an older woman and a younger woman vie for their husband's attention? From there, it could have split into various versions. In some, the older woman might be the heroine's mother. In others, the older woman might be the love interest's mother. Or there might be a totally different relationship between characters.
What do you think?
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
Last month, I discussed 18th-century philanthropist Maria Sophia von Erthal, theorized to be the "real" Snow White. Not long after this theory was published, a similar argument was made for a completely different candidate. The theorist this time was Eckhard Sander, a mathematics and German teacher from Borken. The Maria Sophia theory had a playful feel; even its creator didn't take it too seriously. This next theory is its darker, edgier sister.
Sander's candidate for Snow White was Margarethe von Waldeck. This stunningly beautiful young woman lived near a mining town which used children as laborers. After her father remarried, she was sent away from home. Ultimately, she was poisoned for her beauty and died young - assassinated because a prince fell in love with her.
This theory seems pretty simple on its face, but it’s actually much more elaborate. Sander’s theory is not exactly that Margarethe von Waldeck was the real Snow White. Instead he proposes that the tale of Snow White originated in Waldeck in the late 16th century, with the plot points drawn from local legends and the main character a composite of three different people all named Margarethe.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1533-1554): The Beauty
Location: Bad Wildungen, Hesse
Margarethe was the daughter of Philip IV, Count of Waldeck and his wife Margarethe von Ostfriesland. They lived in the town of Bad Wildungen, in the mountain range known as the Kellerwald. Young Margarethe was exceptionally beautiful, with blonde hair. This might sound like it rules her out - Snow White is supposed to have ebony-black hair, after all - but it's a little-known fact that Snow White was blonde in the Grimms' 1810 draft.
Margarethe was the seventh or eighth child in the family. In 1537, when she was four, her mother died in childbirth. In 1539, Philipp took a second wife, the widowed Catharina von Hatzfeld. Sander hints coyly that perhaps Catharina was jealous of her lovely stepdaughter, but he presents little evidence for this. However, Margarethe was apparently sent to live elsewhere at a young age. Catharina died in 1546.
At some point, Margarethe was sent to the royal court of Brussels in Belgium. ("Richilde," a 1782 version of Snow White, also takes place in Belgium.) She attracted the romantic attentions of Prince Philip, later to be King Philip II of Spain, but then she fell ill and died in the year 1554. She was just 21. According to rumor, she had been poisoned. Was this the work of political rivals who didn't approve of the relationship?
Later that year, Count Philipp IV married his third wife, Jutta of Isenburg-Grenzau. Margarethe's brother Samuel also got married that year. From their father he inherited land including a mining settlement, which would eventually become the town of Bergfreiheit. He put up boundary markers called Bloodstones (Blutsteine). Sander compares this to an obscure Snow White variant from the Grimms' notes: driving through the woods, a count and countess see three piles of snow, three pits of blood, and three black ravens, prompting the count to wish for a girl of those colors.
Samuel built up the local copper mines and granted miners additional freedoms. However, there was a dark side to the industry. Children were used as miners because they could squeeze into the small tunnels. They lived in terrible conditions, many of them stunted in growth and prematurely aged due to their work, so that people referred to them as dwarfs. Large numbers were crammed into small houses with only a couple of rooms - hence, says Sander, the idea of the seven dwarfs living in a tiny cottage.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1564-1575): The Child
Margarethe was the youngest child of Samuel and his wife, Anna Maria von Schwarzburg. She shared a name with her paternal grandmother and aunt. She had six older brothers, all of whom died in infancy except for one, Günther. Samuel died in 1570, when little Margarethe was six. Anna Maria had been carrying on an affair with Samuel's secretary, Göbert Raben, and they secretly married after his death. The scandal infuriated her relatives, who tried to nullify the marriage. A family genealogy suggests that Anna Maria's licentious behavior continued even after she married the secretary (although I suspect some bias here).
Margarethe was sent to live with relatives. In 1575, at the age of just eleven, she fell from a cliff while picking flowers and died. Sander compares this to a variant mentioned in the Grimms' notes - here, rather than sending Snow White with the huntsman, the queen takes Snow White into the forest herself in her carriage. She tells her to pick some roses, and then drives off, abandoning her. Sander also takes note of Margarethe's young age; one early manuscript of Snow White described the heroine as an "unfortunate child."
In 1576, a year after her daughter's death, Anna Maria and her lover were imprisoned. Her lover was released after two years and sent into exile, but Anna Maria spent the rest of her life shut up in a convent.
A dead child. A perverse mother figure imprisoned for her crimes. Out of this history, Sander picked another Snow White story.
Margarethe von Waldeck (1559-1580): The Bride
Margarethe was the daughter of Johann I von Waldeck, from another branch of the same family. In 1578, at age nineteen, she traveled to marry Count Günther von Waldeck (her distant cousin, Samuel's son, Margarethe I's nephew, Margarethe II's brother). It was an elaborate wedding with an elite guest list, processions, feasting, and a four-day-long afterparty. Sander tied this to the wedding and happily-ever-after of Snow White and her prince.
But even this Margarethe didn't get a happily-ever-after; she died childless two years after the wedding. A couple years after that, Gunther took a second wife, also named Margarethe.
Folktales of Bad Wildungen
Sander bulked up his theory with various legends and historical facts from around the area.
Inaccuracies and problems
As with the Maria Sophia theory, there are a few inaccuracies that pop up now and again in articles on the subject. Again, these generally have to do with lines between the history and the fairytale being blurred.
Claim: Catharina had something to do with her stepdaughter Margarethe's poisoning.
Most people correctly spot that this is impossible, since Catharina died long before her stepdaughter. In fact, in his original book, Sander actually focused on Margarethe II's mother, Anna Maria, as the inspiration for the "evil queen" character.
Claim: This is a portrait of Margarethe von Waldeck.
This is Irish writer Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849). This is a mistake spread through various online articles and I'm not sure where it started, but I'd guess someone thought this woman looked Snow White-like and got confused by the fact that she was a countess named Margaret.
Claim: Margarethe's shaky handwriting on her deathbed will is a clue that she was poisoned.
This one is honestly confusing; a dying woman having shaky handwriting is not weird. I think this may be misleading wording, with the idea stemming from a 2005 German documentary titled Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. It was 45 minutes long and put forward the theory that Margarethe had been poisoned with arsenic. Dr. Gerhard Menk, a historian interviewed in the documentary, stated:
"When she wrote the will, it was absolutely clear to her that her life would not last very long. The will shows clearly blurred handwriting. She wrote with a hand that was shaky. And in this respect death is foreseeable relatively early."
As for the viability of the Margarethe theory . . . Sander pulls from everything he can find in history and in the Grimms' manuscripts. Blonde hair and a stepmother from Margarethe I (even though in the Blonde Snow White draft, her biological mother is the villain). Two more Margarethes to provide any missing Snow White-esque details. Poison apples from a local legend - never mind that they bear no resemblance to the poison apple in Snow White.
And I feel like Sander makes too much of the young Margarethes being sent to live elsewhere. He implies that family drama was the cause, particularly that the mother or stepmother was to blame. Maybe this was the case for Margarethe II. But historical nobility often sent their newborns off to wet nurses, which could mean being away from them for long periods of time. Some royal parents were very involved with their children's lives, but even they might send their children to be raised and educated elsewhere. Princes like Edward VI of England had their own households when they were still young children. In particular, Margarethe I going to Brussels would have been a natural step for a teenaged noblewoman, a huge opportunity for her education and marital prospects and a strategic political move for her family.
Where did this theory come from?
Sometime before 1990, Eckhard Sander was writing a term paper for a course at the Justus Liebig University. He was interested in writing about the history of child labor in mining, so he and his family toured a Bergfreiheit copper mine. Their guide claimed that the sight of the children in their protective felt caps emerging from the mountain had inspired the dwarfs of "Snow White."
Intrigued, Sander sought more evidence with help from his professor Gerd Rötzer. Sander was aware of the Hansel and Gretel hoax from the '60s, but unlike the Lohr "study group," he preferred to distance himself from it. He dove deep into the history of the Grimms' work and the various drafts of Snow White, and concluded that fairytales contain a kernel of truth, unconscious memories of real events. The Grimms would have collected the story of Snow White while unaware of the events that had shaped it only a couple of centuries before. Tiny, easily-missed details in the various versions still pointed to the real history.
In 1990, Sander submitted his term paper under the title "Snow White: Fairytales or Truth? An attempt to localize KHM 53 in the Kellerwald." He published it as a book in 1994, with a slightly different subtitle, A local reference to the Kellerwald.
This enjoyed similar success as the Maria Sophia theory. Bergfreiheit now hosts the tourist destination of Schneewittchendorf (Snow White Village). Sander was involved in the making of Snow White and the Murder in Brussels. In 2013, he wrote another book in collaboration with the city of Bad Wildungen, The Life of Margaretha von Waldeck, which is available directly from Bergfreiheit gift shops. Based on Sander's story of the mine tour, at least some locals were already claiming Snow White as their own, which would have added to the momentum.
But Margarethes II and III - the Child and the Bride - seem nearly forgotten, even though they provided key plot points for Sanders’ elaborate patchwork version of Snow White. Margarethe I is the famous one, who had her death dramatized in the Murder in Brussels documentary. This is probably because spreading Snow White to multiple historical figures weakens the appeal of the theory. It's basically admitting that you don't have a good argument. Margarethe I is the one best able to carry the theory on her own, so she gets the limelight.
There are many parallels between the Margarethe and Maria Sophia theories. Both theories were conceived and published within a few years of each other. Both rely on the idea that the Grimms visited or lived near the area. Both focus less on the plot of the story, and more on details like the forks, the mountains, the glassware, or the ironworking. And both became popular because the local towns saw them as perfect tourism opportunities.
Karlheinz Bartels and Eckhard Sander both went digging through history for women who matched Snow White's description. In doing so, they were proponents of euhemerism, the theory that legends are based on real people. But what if we don't set out looking for a specific historical personage? What if we look at the history of the actual folktale?
Next up: Snow White.
OTHER BLOG POSTS
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
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
Fates and Fays in Sleeping Beauty
The good and wicked fairies in Sleeping Beauty have an interesting heritage. In medieval legend, fairies and fays often attended the birth of heroes to prophesy their fates. These stories go back even further, to mythology and ancient religions, where goddesses looked upon newborn children and laid out their fates.
Perceforest is a French prose romance first printed in 1528, but may have been composed as early as 1330. It's very very long, but there's one section in particular that is clearly a version of Sleeping Beauty. This interlude tells of Troylus and Zellandine, ancestors of Sir Lancelot (yes, that one). When Zellandine was born, her aunt was given the task of setting a table with food for the goddesses who witnessed the childbirth, so that they would be pleased and lay out a blessed life for the child. These three goddesses were Venus, Lucina, and Themis. In myth, Venus is the goddess of love, Lucina of childbirth, and Themis of order. Themis is also the mother of the three Fates, and in this tale she is identified as the goddess of destiny. When the goddesses sat down to eat, Themis' knife was missing. It had just fallen under the table, but Themis felt insulted; thus, she cursed Zellandine to prick her finger with flax while spinning and fall into an unending sleep. The goddess Venus, more kindly disposed to the child, found a way around the curse.
When Zellandine falls into a sleep from which she cannot be wakened, the goddess Venus arranges for her paramour, Troylus, to be carried into her tower. Influenced by Venus, Troylus has sex with Zellandine and she becomes pregnant and gives birth while still unconscious. Her newborn son Benuic, trying to suckle, sucks on her finger and draws out the splinter of flax, awakening her.
In "Sun, Moon and Talia" - included in the Italian Pentamerone (1634) - the story is much the same, except that there are no goddesses in attendance. Instead, wise men and astrologers cast the newborn Talia's horoscope and foretell that a splinter of flax will endanger her. The story proceeds in much the same way, with a few exceptions. Instead of one baby, the sleeping Talia gives birth to twins named Sun and Moon. And the story does not end with her awakening. The king who found her already has a wife! In her jealousy, she attempts to have Talia and the kids cooked and eaten. Sympathetic servants save them, the queen is put to death, and Talia lives a long and happy life with her family.
Unlike Zellandine, Talia displays no trauma after what is, honestly, a rape. Zellandine loves her betrothed but still feels violated, and the narrative at least hints that Troylus' actions are wrong. Talia and the king, though, are hunky-dory.
In 1697, Charles Perrault retold this tale as "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood." The three goddesses of Perceforest are echoed by seven fairies who show up to give gifts at the christening, and an eighth, elderly fairy who shows up unexpectedly. Everyone thought she was dead, so unfortunately they did not provide her a place setting with jewel-encrusted golden utensils like the other seven fairies. When the other fairies give gifts of beauty and good temper, she adds an early death. Like Venus, another fairy softens the curse to a sleep (this time around, it is specifically for one hundred years) and lays the path to an eventual happy ending and romance.
The unsavory elements of "Talia" are softened. Perrault's prince doesn't even kiss Beauty. He just happens upon her at the very moment when she naturally awakens. Their children Dawn and Day are born legitimately after a proper wedding and consensual sex. Even the jealous first wife from "Talia" is replaced by a monstrous mother-in-law.
These three stories are all different, but all point to legends about Fate and Destiny. In fact, the word "fairy" may ultimately derive from the Latin Fata, or fate. You have the the Greek Fates or Mourai, the Norse Norns, and others worldwide. In the Greek myth of Meleager, the Fates appear a week after his birth to foretell his fate that he will die as soon as a certain piece of wood on the fire is consumed. His mother seizes the wood and puts it in a safe place, but of course eventually the wood is burnt and Meleager perishes with it. These Fates were portrayed as three old women spinning thread; each thread was a human life. Klotho spun the thread, Lakhesis measured it out, and Atropos cut it.
There is another medieval work, from before Perceforest, which features a scene similar to Sleeping Beauty. There is no enchanted sleep, but there is the encounter with otherworldly women who have strong feelings on table settings. Le Jeu de la Feuillée by Adam de la Halle is a French play which has been dated from around 1262 to 1278. In one scene, the characters set a table for the fairies: three beautiful ladies named Morgue, Arsile and Maglore, attended by Fortune.
Morgue and Arsile crow over the lovely table and the beautiful knives they've been given to eat with, but Maglore doesn't get a knife and is not happy. Morgue and Arsile go on to bestow gifts of good fortune on the men who set the table; for instance, giving one of them fame as a poet. The angry Maglore, however, gives bad fortune (such as baldness).
Morgue is Morgan le Fay. She was often portrayed as part of a group with attendants, sisters or companion queens. In her oldest known appearance, she was the leader of nine sisters. She played the "fay attending on the birth" role in stories of Ogier the Dane and Garin de Montglane. In many tales, her group is a multiple of three; the Norse and Greek Fates are three in number. Three is significant. Birth, life and death. Childhood, adulthood, and old age.
Europe has widespread traditions of leaving out meals for a goddess-fairy and her retinue on certain nights (often around midwinter). If the house is in order and the food has been left out properly, the goddess will be pleased and bless the house - but when angered, some versions turn violent. In many cases, this goddess oversees tasks of spinning. She may have names like Spillaholle (Spindle Holle), Spillagritte, Spellalutsche,or Spinnsteubenfrau. Again we have a goddess tied to spinning, just like the Fates.
One other similar medieval tale: in the 13th-century French work Huon of Bordeaux, the hero meets Oberon, a diminutive sorcerer. Oberon 's birth was attended by noble and royal fairies, but one grew angry because she "was not sent for as well as the others." As a result, she cursed him never to grow taller than a three-year-old. Intriguingly, the 14th-century Turin manuscript identifies Oberon's mother as none other than Morgan le Fay.
The Sleeping Beauty we know today has strong similarities to both "Talia" and Perceforest. The incident of the missing knife travels from "Le Jeu de la Feuillee" (13th century) to Perceforest (16th century) to Perrault (late 17th century) where each fairy receives "a solid gold casket containing a spoon, fork, and knife of fine gold, set with diamonds and rubies."
"Sun, Moon and Talia" does not fit into the pattern as neatly. Despite the supernatural qualities of Talia's sleep, it's apparently random. Zellandine and Sleeping Beauty are victims of Fate personified, a being which can be angered or appeased by human actions. But for Talia, it's just something that is going to happen, not for any observable reason. Her future is not bestowed by a fairy, but detected by learned men who study her horoscope. Similarly, there are two ninth-century Chinese Sleeping Beauty stories, "Shen Yuanzhi" and "Zhang Yunrong," where it is also simply the heroine's destiny to die young/fall into a coma.
However, even in the story of Talia, where there is no angry goddess of fate, her doom is still tied to the act of spinning. She enters her deathlike sleep when she encounters an old woman spinning thread. As Perrault's Beauty pricks her hand on a spindle, Talia gets a splinter of flax under her fingernail.
Also, when she gives birth, she is attended by two fairies (fate in Italian) who care for the newborns and arrange food and drink for her. Just like other fays and goddesses, they show up for a birth.
"Talia" and the Chinese tales, some of the oldest surviving Sleeping Beauty stories, leave the listener with questions. I'm not sure whether a culture believing in gods of fate filled in those questions, or whether those questions are remnants from a culture that believed in gods of fate. But put all these stories together and it makes sense: Sleeping Beauty's terrible fate was the work of an angry goddess, later reinterpreted as a fairy. Why was this goddess angry? Because the ritual welcoming her to the child's birth, the ritual meant to ensure the child's good health and future, had not been properly performed. So the thread spun by the Greek Fates became a weapon against the child whose life it represented. Another goddess of fate, who had been properly appeased, intervened to help. The moral: honor the gods to ensure your child's good future.
1/4/2020: Editing to add that Burchard of Worms, who died in 1024, reprimanded those who at certain times of year would lay out meat, drink, and table settings with knives for "three sisters" whom he compared directly to the Parcae - the Roman Fates. Women doing this ritual apparently hoped to gain the sisters' favor and aid in the future. Burchard also frowned on people believing that the Parcae meted out newborn babies' fates and gave some men the ability to turn into werewolves.
The Colors of Snow White
In a motif popular across many cultures, a man or woman of exceptional beauty is described as "white as snow and red as blood." Black is often thrown into the mix as well. The stark, exaggerated colors illustrate just how striking is the person's loveliness. (See my previous blog post: Three White Qualities, Three Black, Three Red.)
Of course, snow isn't as common in every place where this motif appears. The colors are often compared to various objects, each of which can have different connotations.
Snow denotes purity and untouched perfection.
Cheese, milk, or cream. This is very common in Italian variants of "The Three Citrons." As a dairy product, it may be a feminine symbol. Milk symbolizes life. It can signify prosperity and plenty as in the phrase "the land of milk and honey."
The moon suggests celestial beauty. The moon can be a feminine symbol. In some stories, the evil stepmother consults with the sun or moon instead of a magic mirror. The stepdaughter's beauty outdoes both the stepmother and the moon.
Other variants use marble, a lily, a swan, an egg, sugar cane, or the inside of an orange peel. Most of these, like the lily, are associated with purity.
Blood symbolizes life, passion and desire, or a coming of age for women. Combining it with something white (usually snow) creates a dichotomy of purity and desire. The typical motif of a woman pricking her finger, bleeding, and giving birth to a child suggests a sexual interpretation.
This dichotomy shows up in the Brothers Grimm's Snow White. Although her name indicates clean, sterile innocence, she repeatedly disobeys the dwarves' warnings and gives into temptation, such as accepting the poisoned apple. The apple, too, is half white and half red, and she "dies" when she bites into the red poisoned half.
According to Christine Goldberg, there are two types of the blood motif. In one category, the hero is a hunter, and the blood on the snow belongs to the prey animal he has killed. This indicates “qualities of aloofness, cruelty and dominance." It implies that he wants a wife to “subjugate.”
In the other, the blood is an accident after the hero cuts themselves. It implies that they desire a lover or child like themselves, someone who's the color of their blood. Does this make them sympathetic, as people in pain? Or does it mean they're arrogant and in love with themselves? (Goldberg 122)
Rose: Many characters have Rose as a part of their name, such as Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, or Blanca Rosa. Maybe because it just sounds more appealing than Snow-White-Blood-Red. The rose has long been a symbol of beauty and love.
Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Wild Swans" was based on stories like "The Twelve Wild Ducks" with its heroine Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red. In Andersen's version, the heroine is named Eliza, but roses and other flowers (both white and red) symbolize her innate goodness.
Fire: Snow-White-Fire-Red is from an Italian tale reminiscent of Rapunzel. Like blood, fire can symbolize passion.
Pomegranate: In stories from Africa and the Middle East, rather than snow and blood, the colors are compared to the red and white of a pomegranate. In Ancient Greece, the pomegranate had connections to death as in the story of Persephone. However, in other countries, it's a symbol of abundance and fertility. The pomegranate features heavily in the Song of Solomon, used to describe the lover's beauty.
Ravit Raufman and others suggest that a heroine named Pomegranate creates more sensual, fertile images than Snow White. In this school of thought, Snow White's conception comes from icy, sterile snow and the brutality and passion of blood. Pomegranates are much more inviting.
Cristina Mazzoni analyzes the uses of different fruits in "The Three Citrons," a story type which often features the snow-white maiden. In his version, Giambattista Basile uses the sour, yellow, grammatically male citron. The girl trapped inside is red, white and sweet, more like the grammatically feminine pomegranate. When a later folktale scholar, Italo Calvino, published a version of the story, he named it "The Love of the Three Pomegranates" - perhaps to solve that problem.
Strawberries and apples are also possible metaphors. Italo Calvino found variants of "The Three Citrons" where the girls emerged from nuts, watermelons, lemons, and almost every fruit you can think of. Comparing the girl's whiteness to the inside of an orange peel is a way to connect the metaphor more completely to fruit.
Raven: Very frequently, the black color comes from the feathers of a raven, a magpie, or another bird. Not only can the color black symbolize death and mortality, but the raven lives on carrion and in many cultures is associated with bad luck, death, or the battleground. The raven in Snow White stories is often seen dying or dead, with its blood providing the red color.
Ebony: This occurs in the Grimms' Snow White and a few other tales, but the raven is far more common. Ebony is a valuable ornamental wood which can be carved into intricate and refined shapes because of how hard it is. In versions like the Grimms', the presence of ebony displays the wealth of Snow White's family.
Gold is a less frequent addition to the color theme. It denotes royalty and wealth. In a Celtic story, the Snow White character is named Gold-Tree (and is more beautiful than her mother Silver-Tree).
Tangerine: In the Catalan "La Tarongeta," a queen wishes for a child as white as snow and as gold as a tangerine. As in variants of The Three Citrons, citrus fruits indicate social status and tropical paradises.
Stars, the sun: In the Spanish "The Sleeping Prince," the prince is as white as snow and red as blood, but also as golden as sunlight.
In an Irish tale collected in the 1930s, the main character is called "the Bright Star of Ireland."
In a Snow White-type story from Mozambique, the girl bears a star on her forehead, harkening to widespread stories where a gold star on someone's forehead is a sign of royalty.
Yes, really. Stanislao Prato, in Quattro novelline popolari Livornesi (1880) mentions an unpublished story from Sinigaglia of a girl as white as ricotta and red as blood, with green hair. (pg. 59)
If you're interested in the stories mentioned here, check out my database of stories on the Snow White Project.
Snow White vs. The Wild Swans
There was once a king and queen that lived very happily together, and they had twelve sons and not a single daughter. We are always wishing for what we haven't, and don't care for what we have, and so it was with the queen. One day in winter, when the bawn was covered with snow, she was looking out of the parlor window, and saw there a calf that was just killed by the butcher, and a raven standing near it.
"Oh," says she, "if I had only a daughter with her skin as white as that snow, her cheeks as red as that blood, and her hair as black as that raven, I'd give away every one of my twelve sons for her."
The moment she said the word, she got a great fright, and a shiver went through her, and in an instant after, a severe-looking old woman stood before her.
"That was a wicked wish you made," said she, "and to punish you it will be granted. You will have such a daughter as you desire, but the very day of her birth you will lose your other children."
This is from the Irish story of "The Twelve Wild Geese," a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 451, the Brothers Turned into Birds. Interestingly, it begins with nearly the same incident as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."
In many stories of Type 451, the birth of a daughter somehow coincides with the loss of her older brothers. When she grows older, she takes on the responsibility of seeking them out and saving them. She travels into the wilderness until she finds her brothers' new home. Sometimes she hides or secretly does housework for them until they discover her. For various reasons, the brothers are cursed (usually turned into birds). She can only free them by remaining silent for years while she makes shirts for them. At this point, a king finds her alone in the forest. He marries her, but his mother takes a dislike to her and tries to convince him that the girl is a witch. The mother goes so far as to kidnap the heroine's newborn children, cast them out to die, and then accuse the heroine of killing and eating them. The heroine, still sworn to silence, can do nothing to defend herself even when she's about to be burnt at the stake. However, she manages to finish her task in the nick of time, restores her brothers to human form, and everything turns out fine. She gets her kids back, the king learns the truth, and the mother-in-law is punished.
It's possible that some Type 451 stories were influenced by elements of Snow White. In "The Twelve Wild Ducks" (from Norway) and "The Twelve Wild Geese" (from Ireland), a queen wishes for a child who is white, red and black, and this child is subsequently named Snow-White-and-Rose-Red. In "The Six Swans," it is a hateful stepmother who curses the brothers.
On the other hand, quite a few versions of Snow White begin exactly like Type 451, with the brothers going missing. Instead of moving in with dwarfs, the Snow White character winds up with her long-lost brothers. Some examples of this are "Udea and her Seven Brothers" from Libya, "The Girl of the Woodlands, Her Brothers and the Rakshasa" from India, a tale from Asia Minor collected by R. M. Dawkins, and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
If you bring "Sleeping Beauty" into the mix, there are even more similarities. The Italian "Sun, Moon and Talia" and Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" don't end when the heroine awakens from her sleep. In "Sun, Moon and Talia," a king rapes the sleeping Talia and begets twins upon her, which eventually wakes her. However, he already has a wife, who in a jealous rage tries to have Talia and her children cooked and eaten. Fortunately, she fails. In Perrault, the first wife is adapted into the king's mother instead.
This episode seems unfamiliar until you realize it's really a version of "Snow White," with the sequence of events switched around. Similarly, in the Indian "Princess Aubergine" (yes, Aubergine), when a king takes an interest in the heroine, his first wife becomes jealous. There are no seven dwarfs, but the first wife has seven sons whose deaths stall her and thus protect Aubergine. Eventually, the wife's plots succeed and Aubergine is left in a deathlike coma. Here, again, the king impregnates the heroine while she's unconscious.
In these three tale types - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and "The Brothers Turned into Birds" - the sequence of events are a little different, but they are generally the same events.
First, there's the main character's birth. Snow White stories often begin with a childless woman's wish for a child. "The Brothers Turned into Birds" has a woman with many sons wishing for a daughter instead. In the Grimms' "Briar Rose," the heroine is born after her parents long for a child.
The colors white, red and black are a long-standing theme across literature, but tend to recur in Snow White tales. In all three of the tale types discussed here, it's common to find mentions of roses. The heroines have names like Snow-White-and-Rosy-Red, Briar Rose, Blanca Rosa or Rose-Neige. Red and white flowers, particularly roses, are associated with the heroine of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." When turned into ravens or swans, the enchanted brothers tie into a black or white color scheme.
In both "Snow White" and "The Brothers Turned into Birds," the heroine goes out into the wilderness and discovers a house inhabited by a group of men, whether they be dwarves, robbers, or her long-lost brothers. She does domestic work for them, and they protect her from outside threats, at least for a while.
Then there's the jealous rival who attempts to send her to her death. All three tales focus on a maternal figure devouring her children. Snow White's stepmother wants to eat her lungs and liver. Sleeping Beauty's mother-in-law tries to cook her and her children as a meal. In both cases, the executioner (a huntsman in Snow White, a chef in Sleeping Beauty) takes pity on the heroine and substitutes an animal to be eaten in her place. Meanwhile, in "The Twelve Wild Ducks," the mother-in-law accuses the heroine of cannibalizing her own children. To enforce the lie, she throws the heroine's children to wild animals, but the animals spare them. The same basic ideas are there, just a little scrambled.
While Sleeping Beauty and Snow White narrowly escape being cooked, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" faces burning at the stake. Similarly, Snow White's stepmother gets the punishment of dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
In all three cases, there's a curse involved. Sometimes there's also textile work. Talia and other Sleeping Beauties fall into a coma when they pierce their fingers spinning thread. The heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" often has to break her brothers' curse by making shirts for them - a process which involves picking, carding, spinning and knitting.
The biggest difference is that unlike Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the heroine of "The Brothers Turned into Birds" never undergoes an enchanted sleep. Instead she spends a period of self-imposed silence while she labors to break her brothers' curse.
However, the long isolation in the wilderness until her discovery by a king is still the same. The king finds her deep in the forest - whether in a castle surrounded by thorns, in a glass casket, or sitting in a tree. Stricken by her beauty, he immediately claims her. Uncomfortably for modern readers, the heroine is unable to communicate, since at this point she is either unconscious or sworn to silence. She gives birth while still in this state.
As said before, many stories share motifs. However, these three stories dovetail in fascinating ways.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.