The Fairy Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most famous ones in the world. The Brothers Grimm introduced all of us to this ancient tale then Disney, in 1937 won a Oscar with its adaptation. Like many others Grimm’s stories, Snow White is inspired by legends and tales from the tales of German folklore. The version that everyone knows today is the “easy to digest” one, published indeed by the two brothers in 1857.

Differences between the 1st and last version

The version from the 1812 is drastically different from the one we are all accustomed to. The step mother is here Snow White’s real mother. The girl is only 7 years old and the  woman wants to get her killed so that she can have her liver and lungs to cook with salt and pepper. The price first meets her at an uncertain age when she is in her glass coffin. She wakes up from her death neither by a kiss nor for the venom of an apple but rather for the tugs of the servants, tired of the anger of the prince caused by his necrophiliac love for the corpse of the girl.

Above: illustration by Franz Jüttner

The evil queen got killed by Snow White and the Prince as a revenge for all that she had done. They invited her to their wedding, forced her to wear a pair of shoes made out of white hot iron that burnt her feet. Subsequently they made her dance up to the point when she fell to her death for the exhaustion.

Was Snow White Margaretha von Waldeck?

In 1994, a German historian named Eckhard Sander published a book named “Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit?” (Snow White: is it a fairy tale?), believing to have gone back to the origins behind the brothers Grimm’s tale. According to him, the character of Snow White was based on the events of Margaretha von Waldeck’s life, countess of German born from Philip IV and his first wife in 1533. At her 16th birthday, Margaretha was obliged from her vicious stepmother Katharina Von Hatzfeld to leave Wildungen and go to into semi-exile in Brussels.

Above: illustration by Franz Jüttner, 1905

Against the will of her father and stepmother, there Margaretha fell in love with a prince that later on would have become Philip II king of Spain. The relationship was in fact politically uncomfortable and the girl died mysteriously at the young age of 21, apparently through poisoning. The historical records suggest that the killing got commissioned by the King of  Spain, who was against the love affair between the son and the girl therefore he sent over Spanish secret agents to get rid of Margaretha.

The elements contained within the story are extremely plausible in reality. The seven dwarfs would be the little children who had been enslaved by Philip IV and that would work for him in the copper mines. Their conditions were dramatic: not only they would endure merciless fatigue in their early age but they would also come out deformed for the malnutrition and the physical exertion they had gone through early in life.

The poisoned apple, still in accordance with the historian, would be attributable to an event that took place in Germany: in the story an old man got arrested for having given poisoned apples to some children who had attempted to steal the man’s wares.

Above: illustration by Franz Jüttner, 1905

An alternative lead: Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina Von Erthal

Not everyone agrees with Sander’s theory, though. According to a group of researchers from Lohr (Baviera), Snow White was inspired  by Maria Sophia von Erthal, born on the 15th of June 1725 in Lohr am Main, Baviera. The girl was the daughter of a landowner, prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, and his wife the baroness Von Bettendorff.

After the death of the baroness, prince Philipp got married to the countess of  Reichenstein, Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen, whom didn’t like the presence of stepchildren and preferred the ones of her own. The castle where they were living, now a museum, was holding a “talking mirror”, an acoustic device able to record the voice of those who would talk to it (now preserved at the Spessart Museum). The mirror, built in 1720 by the Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz in Lohr, was a gift from the prince to the second wife.

The dwarfs in Maria’s story are linked to a mining city, Bieeber, located West of Lohr and hidden amongst seven hills. The smallest tunnels could be reached only by tiny miners, whom on occasion would wear colourful hoods just like the way the dwarfs were represented throughout the centuries. The Lohr researchers would assert that the glass coffin was a reference to the several famous glassmakers of the region, whereas the poisoned apple was a link to the venom that the many deadly nightshades growing around the castle would develop.

Above: illustration by Franz Jüttner, 1905

The stepmother of Maria Sophia Margaretha forced the girl to run away from home, hence becoming homeless. Maria lived in woods nearby the castle, helped by little minors that were working in the mines of her father, but soon she died of smallpox. The aversion that the community had towards the evil Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen made the young girl a martyr, died of the hate that the woman felt because of her radiant beauty.

Conclusions

The fairy tale of Snow White is certainly inspired by several real facts happened in Germany during the centuries preceding the writing of it. Notheworthy is the fact that the “magic helpers” (in this context the seven dwarfs) were identified for sure as the little workers from the German mines in the 17th and 18th century. The tale could very well be a mixture of several elements and legends, taken from real events happened to different people and put altogether in a single unique fable.

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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