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I. The origin of the myth of Snow White.
The story of Snow White is perhaps one of the best-known stories around the world.
It was the first adaptation that took place in the cinema and in turn is the first animated film of the Walt Disney studios giving the company a great success.
The Grimm brothers’ version is the canonical version of this story. The brothers were inspired by mythology, folklore and real-life characters to create one of the fairy tales that is still booming today after more than 200 years.
The origin of Snow White’s tale is in Europe. The theme of this story, which is the conflict between mother/stepmother and daughter as their possible competitor, appears in different literary traditions, as researcher Angela Olalla Real points out.
The oldest account of this competition appears in the myth of Psyche, a princess of extraordinary beauty who even Aphrodite, the mother of her beloved Eros, was jealous of. Aphrodite subjected Psyche to harsh tests, the last being to go down to the underworld and collect from the hand of Persephone (Queen of the Dead) a chest with an ointment for Eros to recover its beauty. This test was very difficult because anyone who went down to the underworld could not return. In the end Psyche successfully passed the test and married Eros. Aphrodite was invited to the wedding where she had to dance.
This story is very similar to that of Snow White as it shares common elements such as the beauty of the young woman, jealousy, as well as the triumph of the young woman and her subsequent wedding. At the wedding Aphrodite had to dance just like in the version of the Grimm brothers the stepmother dances on Snow White’s wedding day.
Apuleyo, a 2nd century Roman writer, tells the story of Psyche and Venus (Aphrodite in Rome) in his work The Metamorphosis (Golden Ass).
Here we see how the myth of Greek tradition comes to Rome where Apuleyo records it in writing but adapting it to Roman beliefs and gods.
As the researcher Bruno Bettelheim states, European fairy tales are the residue of religious and pre-Christian themes. With the advent of Christianity they lost popularity as pagan tendencies were not tolerated.
These myths and stories remained in the memory of the people who transmitted it orally from generation to generation.
In the 16th century Giambattista Basile published the Pentamerón, inspired by Boccacio’s Decameron, the tale of traditional tales.
International literary critics and researchers such as the American writer Stephen Crane, the Italian researcher Benedetto Croce, among others, point to the Pentameron as the richest, most artistic and popular book.
In the Pentameron we find a story titled The Slave where the main character is a girl named Lisa.
The story tells how Lisa is cursed by a fairy and tells her that when she is seven years old her mother will put a comb that will cause her death. The prophecy is fulfilled and Lisa’s family places the girl’s body in a glass coffin. To everyone’s surprise, the girl was growing inside the coffin as the years went by until she became a very beautiful woman.
After the mother’s death, the girl’s aunt was jealous of the girl´s beauty. Such is the jealousy that tries to destroy the young woman’s body but when she is taken out of the coffin the comb falls off and she is awake from her state of unconsciousness.
In this story beauty and jealousy continue to be the main theme and we also see two elements that the Grimm brothers will take for their story. The first element is the comb and the second element is the glass coffin.
II. The story elaborated by the Brothers Grimm and its inspiration in the princess Maria Sophia Margaret Catherine Von Erthal.
In 1812 Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published Tales from Childhood and Home (Kinder – und Hausmärchen), where they compiled fairy tales from the German oral tradition.
Within this story we find the story of Snow White (Schneewittchen). The story narrates a queen’s desire to be a mother, while sewing at the window she wishes to have a daughter as white as snow, black as ebony and red as blood. Her wish comes true and little Snow White is born. The queen dies and the King remarries an evil and vain woman. The woman possessed a magic mirror and asked him daily “mirror, mirror Who is the most beautiful in the kingdom?” the mirror always answered that it was her but when Snow White reached the age of seven the mirror confessed that the most beautiful in the kingdom was the little one.
The jealous queen entrusts a hunter of her confidence to take the girl to the forest and kill her. As proof of the atrocity she asks for her liver and lungs. When the hunter prepares to carry out this crime he repents and frees the little one in the forest thinking that the wild beasts would end up killing her.
The hunter slaughtered a young wild boar and extracted the lungs and liver from it to present them to his queen. When the queen took possession of the viscera, she instructed the palace cook to cook everything with salt. The queen ate the viscera thinking they were Snow White.
The little girl was alone wandering through the forest and saw a house where everything was perfectly clean and tidy. The little one ate of the seven small plates that had and ended up falling asleep in the beds.
When the owners of the house, the seven dwarfs who were working in the mine, arrived at their house, they found the little Snow White. The girl told them her story and they decide to take her in.
The dwarfs warn the little girl never to let anyone into the house and at the same time tell her that if her stepmother finds out she is alive she will come to kill her.
The stepmother, through her mirror, learns that she has been deceived by the hunter and that the little one is still alive in the dwarfs’ house. So she decides to go herself and kill the little girl.
Three attempts are made by the stepmother to kill Snow White. The first is when, disguised as an old woman, she offers the girl a headband, she agrees to buy it and the evil queen strangles her with it.
When the stepmother finds out that Snow White is still alive, she goes back to the house in disguise and offers the little girl a comb. The comb was poisoned at the time the girl started combing her hair and falls back dead on the floor.
The queen discovers through her mirror that the girl is still alive so that she again disguises herself as an old woman and this time poisons an apple on one side. When she approaches the dwarfs’ house, the suspicious girl does not accept the apple but the evil queen bites her on the side that was not poisoned, thus deceiving the young woman. When Snow White bites the apple falls dead to the ground and when the dwarfs arrived at the house at night they could do nothing to save her.
The seven dwarfs put Snow White’s body in a glass coffin and left it in the forest because they felt sorry to bury it because she was so beautiful.
One day a prince passes by and falls in love with the girl’s corpse. He asks the dwarfs for the body and in return he will always take care of it. When the prince’s porters take the coffin, one of them stumbles upon a bush, causing the piece of the girl’s apple to come out of her throat.
Snow White revives and marries the prince. The queen was invited to her wedding and she was very curious because her mirror had confessed to her that the new queen was much more beautiful than she was. When she arrives she discovers that it is Snow White and in that moment the girl condemns her to dance with some burning iron shoes until she falls dead.
When the Grimm brothers prepared this story together with the elements they took from Basile, they added others such as the mirror and the seven dwarfs. Where do these two elements come from?
Researcher Karlheinz Bartels points out that Snow White is inspired by the life of Maria Sophia Margaret Catherine von Erthal, an 18th century German princess who suffered the contempt of her stepmother.
Princess Maria Sophia Marguerite Catherine von Erthal was the daughter of the Count of Kurmainz Philipp Christoph von Erthal. The little one was partially blind due to smallpox and was orphaned in 1741. Her father remarried Claudia Elisabeth Maria Von Venningen, Countess of Reichenstein.
Philipp’s second wife put her children from another marriage before Maria Sophia who had to bear the contempt of her stepmother.
The princess won the affection of her people because of her kindness and her close relationship with the children and miners of the Beiber mine. People of short stature and children work in the mine due to the narrowness of its galleries. Many of these children died working from blows or landslides. They wore coloured hoods and, according to research, some suffered from premature ageing. This fact could have inspired the two brothers in the creation of the seven dwarfs.
The magic mirror of the story’s stepmother existed in reality. It was Count Philipp’s wedding present to his second wife. It is a talking mirror that is an acoustic toy that was in fashion in the 18th century. This mirror is currently on display at the Spessart Museum in Mainz. The mirror measures a meter and a half, does not speak but has the peculiarity of repeating everything that is said in front of it due to a reverberation effect.
Bartels worked for ten years to investigate all these coincidences in the life of Princess Maria Sofia with the story.
Many are the researchers who point out that the work of the Grimm brothers was the fruit of the compilation of oral tradition and folklore. But just like Bartels’ work and the clear coincidences, it is not unreasonable to say that they were able to draw inspiration from the life of this princess to add new elements in keeping with the history of the German people.
Apuleyo, Lucio (1998). El asno de oro. Madrid: Gredos.
Bartels, K (1990). Schneewittchen – Zur Fabulologie des Spessarts. Lorh am Main: Buchhandlung Reinhart von Torne.
Bettelheim, B (1994). Psicoanálisis de los cuentos de hadas. Barcelona: Drakontos.
Croce, B (2016). Introducción: Giambattista Basile. El pentameron: el cuento de los cuentos. Madrid: Siruela.
Olalla Real, A (1989). La magia de la razón (investigaciones de los cuentos de hadas). Granada: Universidad de Granada.