The dark origins of the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”5 min read
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most famous (and appreciated) fairy tales in the world, first related in 1812 when the Grimm brothers published their collection of tales that had been gathered from old European folk stories. Like many of the Grimm tales, it is supposed that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been in existence since the Middle Ages, passed down through word-of-mouth over the centuries. The version that is universally told today is the most “digestible” by a non-adult audience, and in 1937, Walt Disney’s animated feature film popularized the story worldwide.
Yes, Snow White, the sweet story of an innocent young beauty who is banished by a vain, cruel, and jealous stepmother and who, with the help of seven lovable dwarfs, ultimately finds her everlasting true love. The story beloved by generations of children.
However, the 1812 fairy tale is very different from what we all know, a story which was a lot more, well, grim.
In short, the stepmother is actually Snow White’s mother, who is only seven years old, and wants to have her killed to eat her liver and lungs with salt and pepper.
“Kill her, and as proof that she is dead bring her lungs and liver back to me.”
He kills a boar instead, and brings back to the Queen the boar’s lungs and liver—which the Queen thinks belongs to Snow White and so promptly eats.
The prince knows her in the glass coffin at an unspecified moment of the girl’s age, who is awakened by the apple poison not by a man’s kiss, but by the tugging of the servants, tired of seeing the prince angry because of love necrophile for the girl’s corpse.
The evil queen finally dies killed in revenge by Snow White and the Prince, who invite her to their wedding and force her to wear red-hot iron shoes, which first burn her feet and then force her to dance until she falls dead from exhaustion. As the Grimm Brothers wrote: “They put a pair of iron shoes into burning coals. They were brought forth with tongs and placed before her. She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.”
And you can see why Disney wanted to clean up that unsavory image….
In 1994, a German historian named Eckhard Sander published “Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit?” (Snow White: is it a fairy tale?), claiming he had uncovered an account that may have inspired the story that first appeared in Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. According to the historian, the character of Snow White is based on the life of Margaretha von Waldeck, a German countess born to Philip IV and his first wife in 1533. At the age of 16 Margaretha was forced by her stepmother, Katharina of Hatzfeld, to move away to Wildungen in Brussels.
There Margaretha fell in love with a prince who would later become Philip II of Spain, against the wishes of his father and stepmother. The relationship was in fact “politically inconvenient”, and the girl mysteriously died at the age of 21, apparently having been poisoned. Historical reports indicate the probable instigator of the murder was the King of Spain, who opposed the love story between the son and the girl, and who sent Spanish special agents to kill the young Margaretha.
And the seven dwarfs?
Philip IV owned several copper mines that employed children basically as slaves. These were not only forced to work into inhuman condition, causing many to die at a young age but those that survived had severely stunted growth and deformed limbs from malnutrition and the hard physical labour. As a result, they were often referred to as the “poor dwarfs”.
The poisoned apple, again according to the writer, is attributable to a historical event that happened in Germany, which saw an elderly man arrested for giving poisoned apples to children, who he believed were stealing his fruits.
However, not everyone agrees with the version told by Sander. According to a group of scholars from Lohr, Bavaria, Snow White is inspired by the life of Maria Sophia von Erthal, born on June 15, 1725 in Lohr am Main, in the same region. The girl was the daughter of a landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, and his wife, Baroness Von Bettendorff.
After the Baroness’ death, Prince Philipp went onto marry Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen, Countess of Reichenstein, who was said to dislike her stepchildren and she preferred “legitimate” children. The castle where they lived, which is now a museum, housed a famous “talking mirror”, an acoustic toy capable of recording and reproducing the voice of the speaker (now housed in the Spessart Museum). The mirror, constructed in 1720 by the Mirror Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz in Lohr, had been in the house during the time that Maria’s stepmother lived there, and was a gift from the prince to his second wife.
The dwarves in Maria’s story are also linked to a mining town, Bieber, located west of Lohr and hidden among seven mountains. The smallest tunnels could only be accessed by very short miners, who often wore bright hoods, as the dwarfs have frequently been depicted over the years. Lohr’s study group claims that the glass coffin can be connected to the region’s famous glassworks, while the poisoned apple can be associated with the deadly nightshade poison that grows abundantly near the castle.
Eventually, Maria Sophia Margaretha’s stepmother forced the girl to flee the house, effectively making her a vagabond. The girl lived a few years in the woods adjacent to the mansion, helped by the small miners who worked in the mines of her father, and finally dying of smallpox. The aversion towards the young girl by the perfidious Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen made her a martyr, dead from the hatred that the woman felt towards her beauty.
It may never be known where the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs truly originated, but the fairy tale is certainly inspired by some real events that occurred in Germany in the centuries preceding its drafting. In any case, the seven dwarfs are identified almost with certainty in the small workers of the German mines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the story could be the result of a mixture of elements, legends, and events that really occurred, mixed in with fantasy and imagination.
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