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Snow White

Who’s the Darkest of Them All? The Arcane Origins of the Tale of Snow White

Darker re-imaginings of fairy tales appear periodically in popular culture, but most of them would  seem tame next to the first written versions. The inherent darkness of fairy tales permeates even the most sugar-coated adaptations. A fine example is Snow White, whose Evil Queen delivered the most memorable moments in Disney’s first feature-length animated movie (1937), scarring children for generations. Unsurprising, given that the original tale, which has evolved through centuries, has elements of murderous jealousy, ritual cannibalism, sexual temptation, necrophilic imagery and capital punishment.

Although the popularity of the 1937 Disney adaptation eclipsed any previous portrayals, the best known written version is the one collected by the Grimm brothers in their Nursery and Household Tales (1812). Almost two centuries earlier, Italian author Giambatista Basile had collected several folktales in his Pentamerone (1643), among them a story called The Young Slave, generally considered to be the first written version of Snow White, though it also has similarities with Sleeping BeautyThe Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard. The Grimms edited their fairytales for a period of over four decades. The volume, initially intended for academic study, quickly gained popularity and was gradually “sanitised” and transformed into a children’s book.

The Grimms’ story is set in mid-winter, in an icy cold landscape, with a queen sewing in front of the ebony-framed window of a castle from which she sees a snow-covered forest. She pricks her finger and three drops of her blood fall on the snow. She then wishes she could have a child “as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as the ebony window-frame”. The three colours are a theme repeated throughout the story, and their symbolism has been widely discussed – since ancient times, they have represented light, blood and darkness. [1]

In popular culture, Snow White’s nemesis is her wicked stepmother – her mother, we’re told, died in labour. But the first written manuscript of the Grimms shows us otherwise. The figure of the wicked stepmother stems from the 1819 version. In the original manuscript of 1810, the dark figure, the woman who hates the little girl to the point of ordering her death, is her own mother. The replacement of the wicked maternal figure for a nemesis with whom the protagonist shares no blood ties was a relatively frequent purge made by the Grimms, also seen in Hansel and Gretel and Mother Holle.

The power of the evil queen is fundamentally based in her beauty. But she also possesses a magic apparatus, the mirror – a stern, merciless judge that, like the eye of providence, has the power of omniscience. This is the first indication of the character’s taste for witchcraft: since antiquity, mirrors or reflective surfaces have been linked to divination by scrying.

Popular culture has assimilated the figure of Snow White with that of an adolescent in the process of reaching sexual maturity. The reason is that, archetypically, the tale can be read as a parable of sexual awakening. But let’s get back to the Grimms version. In it, she’s only seven when the mirror decides she’s more beautiful than the queen. Naturally, seven is a symbolic number that also appears in its written predecessor The Young Slave. Even for Medieval standards, when young girls were married from the age of ten, this is a very early age for reaching puberty.

Mad with envy, feeling that her power is at stake by the young girl’s increasing beauty, the queen orders the huntsman (who in other versions is her lover) to kill Snow White and bring back her lungs and liver. The huntsman takes her to the forest, but when he is about to kill her, she begs for mercy and he feels incapable of harming someone with such beauty. He finally abandons her in the deep forest, convinced that the wild beasts will take her. The queen wanted her internal organs, so the huntsman, in what historian of religions Norman Girardot suggests is a reminiscence of the “sacrificial rites of the virgin maiden”, kills a wild boar instead – in antiquity, these were frequently used as a substitute for human sacrifice to appease the gods.

The subsequent event has been largely forgotten – and rarely shown in film adaptations. When the queen receives her daughter’s viscera, she decides she’ll have them salted and boiled, then feasts upon them with epicurean pleasure, convinced that they’re Snow White’s. The root of her pleasure rests on two facts: she has obliterated her daughter, her rival, but also, crucially, this anthropophagic act preserves the essence of ritual cannibalism – the ancient belief that eating the enemies’ flesh was a source of spiritual and physical strength. By eating Snow White, she believes she will embody her characteristics. The choice of organs is relevant: lungs represent the breath, the spirit; and the liver is a symbol of purification, as it cleanses the blood. In The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar points out that different versions include different “gifts”: the most remembered one is the heart; but in Spain, it’s “a bottle of blood stoppered with the girl’s toe”, whereas in Italy, the huntsman must return with “her intestines and her blood-soaked shirt” or her eyes and a bottle of her blood.

Meanwhile, the wild beasts in the forest haven’t harmed Snow White, and she has found a place to rest: the house where the seven dwarfs live. The dwarfs don’t appear in any Italian texts, but they’re a traditional figure in German folklore, associated with mining and the arts of the blacksmiths, which suggests that they were likely a German addition. Although in some versions they are robbers, in the Grimms’ narrative they are merely miners who search for gold [2]. Most importantly, they become Snow White’s helpers. In the 1810 manuscript they allow her to stay under the condition that she cooks for them. By 1812, however, their contract is more demanding: “If you keep house for us, do the cooking, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and clean, you can stay with us”. Although the contract reminds us of an old-fashioned marriage (undoubtedly expressing the Grimms’ ideas on household duties), the dwarfs are completely desexualised. Older narratives that present them as robbers remain more ambiguous, inevitably raising questions about the precise nature of all arrangements.

The queen finds out that Snow White is alive through the voice of her magic mirror. This is the point at which she fully resorts to witchcraft, going to her secret room to brew some potions, then disguising herself as an old pedlar to visit the girl. Her first two gifts (bodice lace that asphyxiates her and a poisoned comb) aren’t strong enough to kill Snow White, who on both occasions is saved by the dwarfs, but she is finally taken, or so it seems, by the poisoned apple. The nature of the three gifts reinforces the idea of the tale as an allegory of sexual awakening, culminating in the apple, reminiscent of original sin (even the Latin word for apple, malum, also means evil), an image so powerful that it has resisted the passage of time and reappears in contemporary urban legends, namely the myth of the poisoned or tampered Halloween candy.

Thinking she’s dead, the dwarfs place Snow White, rather morbidly, in a glass coffin. But of course, she doesn’t decompose – she’s merely there, on display, like an incorrupt saint, a tableau which associates sanctity and physical beauty in the manner of Cicero or St. Augustin. She remains in the coffin “for a very long time”, during which she presumably reaches puberty.

The 1810 manuscript carries a suggestion of incest, as it’s her father who awakens Snow White and takes revenge on the queen. The Grimms replaced him with the figure of Prince Charming, who falls for the image of the maiden in the coffin. The tale explains that “he offered the dwarfs money, and earnestly prayed them to let him take her away”. What a young prince could do with the incorrupt corpse of a beautiful princess is rather dubious – possibly Poe territory. The dwarfs initially refuse, but finally “had pity on him, and gave him the coffin”. There is no life-giving kiss though, but a contrived sort of Heimlich manoeuvre provided by the shaking of the glass coffin when being transported to the prince’s castle. The apple comes out of her throat and by means of this deus ex machina she’s instantly revived. It is then that the prince asks her to marry him, and she consents.

The evil queen meets a gory end, punished to dance to her death in a pair of hot iron slippers, an obscure torture device that, as reported in 18th century inquisitorial documents, burned the flesh to the bone.

In the tale, beauty is a form of power; it is stronger than witchcraft. Beauty saves Snow White from a fatal destiny on three occasions. But what happens when beauty fades? The evil queen, the tragic heroine, resorts to witchcraft and encounters capital punishment. Mythographer Marina Warner writes that the tale “encode(s) a lesson in resignation to the passage of time, the overtaking of age by youth”. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar conclude that the mirror is an embodiment of the patriarchal culture that forces the confrontation between the two female characters – a reading most appropriate when translated into a Hollywood context. The tale’s powerful symbolism, of which these dark elements are key, ensures its survival in the collective imagery. Even if the princess is transformed into an amazon, the horror of tempus fugit haunts us still.


[1] Historian of religions Norman Girardot analyses the tale as a story of initiation, underlining the parallelism with the three phases of the alchemical process (nigredo, albedo and rubedo), that, just like the tale, would represent the cycle of death, purification and rebirth.

[2] Miners and blacksmiths, going back to the Greek god Hephaestus and the Egyptian deity Ptah, are represented as short, somewhat deformed, often with a limp. History of Medicine reveals that ancient metal workers could have suffered the effect of toxic substances such as lead, copper and arsenic, causing peripheral neuritis that was translated into weakness, and often lameness, of the lower extremities, among other consequences. In Snow White: Is it a Fairy Tale? (1994), Eckhard Sander suggests the possibility that the “real” dwarfs could have been deformed child miners in Bad Wildungen.

Selected bibliography:

  • Girardot, N. J.: Initiation and meaning in the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 90, No. 357 (Jul. – Sep., 1977), pp. 274-300.
  • Tatar, Maria: The hard facts of the Grimms’ fairy tales. Princeton University Press.
  • Warner, Marina: No go the bogeyman: scaring, lulling and making mock.
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