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.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.