Most know Snow White from the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the nineteenth-century German fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm: a young, beautiful girl loses her mother. When her father remarries, the princess’s vain and wicked stepmother grows jealous of the sweet fairness of Snow White. There’s this crazy, magical mirror who reminds the aging queen that she is, indeed, aging. Eventually, the queen sends a hitman after the princess, she flees, is taken in by seven coal workers in the woods. They do the whole domestic thing until a witch comes and poisons her. No worries, Disney gives her a happy ending with the prince kissing her awake and whisking her off to the royal castle. The Grimm version makes the stepmother queen put on red-hot shoes and dance until she drops dead. Gives the story a bit more justified karma if you ask me.
A lot of symbolism lies in the fairy tale, but interestingly enough, in 1994, Eckhard Sander, a German historian, uncovered a real woman who could have inspired the story: Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess who was forced to move to Burssels at sixteen by her stepmother, Katharina of Hatzfeld. There, the countess fell in love with a prince Phillip II who became king of several European countries, like Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sicily, England, and Ireland—due to marriage. Margarete’s father and stepmother disapproved of their relationship because of its political inconvenience, and the young woman died at twenty-one, supposedly poisoned by Phillip II’s father, who also opposed to the romance.
Still, the connections continue as the seven dwarfs seem to resemble the children employed by her father in his copper mines. Many of them died due to the poor conditions, but those who lived had stunted growth and malformed limbs from malnutrition and difficult physical labor.
And finally, the poisoned apple may have stemmed from German history as well, when an old man fed poisoned apples to children whom he thought were stealing his fruit.
However, another group of Bavarian scholars believe that Snow White was based on Maria Sophia von Erthal of Bavaria. The daughter of landowner, Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness con Bettendorff. When her mother died, Sophia’s father married the Countess of Reichenstein, who hated her stepchildren and lived in a castle with a talking mirror, an acoustical toy manufactured in 1720.
The dwarves in Maria’s storied also linked to a mine in Bieber set amongst the seven mountains, which had tunnels so small that only very short miners that wore bright hoods as the dwarfs were depicted over the years.
Additionally, the glass coffin connected to the glass industry of the region, and the poisoned apple associated with the nightshade plants that grow abundantly in Lohr.
Other fictional variations of the story show the queen committing cannibalism, eating Snow White’s lungs and liver, and could be a connection to old Slavic tales of witches eating human hearts. This connects to the later versions where the queen requests her huntsman to return with Snow White’s heart.
In another, Snow White is the villain and jealous of her biological mother. A version earlier than Grimm’s showed Snow White being sent out to collect flowers and being abandoned, both by the mother and a servant. Later, the story changed the villain to a stepmother to be more acceptable for children.
Other traditions outside of Europe create further variations, like Albania’s version showed Snow White living with forty dragons and a ring causing her slumber. However, the tale twists the initial conflict by having Snow White’s teacher urging her to murder the queen for her place of power. Others say her two jealous sisters try to kill her instead.
An epic Indian poem, “Padmavat,” depicts a stepmother queen asking her parrot who is the most beautiful with a disagreeable reply. The same happened in an Armenian story, where a mother asked the moon the same question, resulting in the plot to kill her daughter. And a Russian tale creates a similar story of Snow White but replaces the dwarfs with knights.
Plenty of interpretations exist over the symbolism in the well-known tale: the seven-deadly sins and the seven dwarfs; the black, white, and red and their links to alchemy, Indian philosophy, and Egyptian culture; a metaphysical rebirth of Snow White’s reawakening; the poisoned apple links to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and etc. I could write a post all its own about these.
Want to see more twists to the classic tale and others? Check out AFTER THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, and read my version “She of Silken Scarves,” which mixes Snow White, Cinderella, and Mission Impossible with a slew of conspiracy theories.