Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs: Finding the true origins of this 15th century fairy tale

The true origins of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a lot darker than you think.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most well-known fairy tales in the world. It was originally told in 1812, when the Grimm brothers released their collection of tales culled from old European folklore.

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Framed Print of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stage production. © Media Storehouse

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, like many of the Grimm stories, is said to have existed since the Middle Ages and was handed down by word-of-mouth through the ages.

Walt Disney’s animated feature film Snow White, released in 1937, popularised the narrative across the world, and it has since been considered as simply a work of fiction. However, new research shows that the well-known fairy tale may have some truth to it after all.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Plot summary

Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs: Finding the true origins of this 15th century fairy tale 1
The Evil Queen in front of the Mirror Mirror in a 1916 illustration. © Wikimedia Commons

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the story of a lovely princess who was born with skin so white and pure that her mother dubbed her Snow White. Following the death of the Queen, her father married a lady who was vain and evil, and who would stand in front of a magical mirror, asking who was the fairest woman in the country. The mirror constantly answered, “My Queen, you are the prettiest of them,” until one day she received a response that enraged her — Snow White was suddenly the fairest lady in all the kingdom.

Snow White’s stepmother, enraged at what the mirror had shown, sent a huntsman to take her into the forest and murder her. The huntsman, however, felt pity for Snow White and let her go. Snow White stumbled upon a little cottage and dropped onto one of the beds, falling into a deep slumber. When she awakened, she was surrounded by seven dwarfs. They promised Snow White she could remain as long as she cleaned and cooked for them.

Snow White and the dwarfs were happy until one day when the magic mirror revealed to the Queen that Snow White was still alive and the fairest of them all. Snow White was given a poisoned apple by the Queen, who disguised herself as an old woman. Snow White became asleep after biting into the apple. Assuming she was dead, the dwarfs constructed a glass coffin and placed her inside.

A gorgeous Prince happened to walk by one day and noticed Snow White in the casket. He fell in love with her right away and persuaded the dwarfs to let him take the casket so he could give her a befitting funeral. While carrying the coffin, he and the other men tripped over some tree roots, causing the poisoned apple to fall from Snow White’s throat. She awoke, and the Prince confessed his love for her. They married, and, as is customary in fairy tales, they lived happily ever after.

Was Snow White a real person?

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An illustration from page 17 of ‘Mjallhvít’ (Snow White) from an 1852 Icelandic translation of the Grimm-version fairytale. © Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, a German historian called Eckhard Sander released Schneewittchen: Marchen or Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?) claiming to have discovered an account that may have influenced the narrative initially published in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

According to Sander, the Snow White figure was based on the biography of Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess born in 1533 to Philip IV. Margarete was forced to move away from Wildungen in Brussels by her stepmother, Katharina of Hatzfeld, when she was 16 years old. Margarete fell in love with a prince who would eventually become Phillip II of Spain while there.

Margarete’s father and stepmother were against the relationship because it was “politically uncomfortable.” Margarete died unexpectedly at the age of 21, presumably as a result of poisoning. According to historical reports, the King of Spain was opposed to the romance and may have ordered Spanish spies to assassinate Margarete.

So, how about the seven dwarfs? Margarete’s father owned many copper mines where children were treated as though they were slaves. Many died at an early age as a result of the terrible conditions, while those who survived had severely stunted development and malformed limbs as a result of starvation and intense physical labour. As a result, they were frequently referred to as “poor dwarfs.”

Sanders believes the poison apple originated from a real occurrence in German history in which an elderly man was imprisoned for distributing poison apples to youngsters who he felt were stealing his produce.

An alternative story – Maria Sophia von Erthal

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Historian Eckhard Sander’s maintains that the seven dwarfs represent the impoverished child laborers employed by Margarete von Waldeck’s father. © Wikimedia Commons

Sander’s assertion that Snow White’s persona is based on Margarete von Waldeck’s biography is not universally accepted. Snow White, according to a study group in Lohr, Bavaria, is based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, who was born on June 15, 1729 in Lohr am Main, Bavaria. She was the daughter of landowner Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal and his wife, Baroness von Bettendorff, in the 18th century.

Following the death of the Baroness, Prince Philipp married Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen, Countess of Reichenstein, who was rumoured to detest her stepchildren. The castle where they resided, which is now a museum, had a ‘talking mirror,’ an acoustical toy that could speak (now housed in the Spessart Museum). The mirror, built in 1720 in Lohr by the Mirror Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz, had been in the home while Maria’s stepmother resided there.

The dwarfs in Maria’s narrative are also related to Bieber, a mining town located immediately west of Lohr and surrounded by seven mountains. The tiniest tunnels could only be reached by very short miners, who often donned colourful hoods, as portrayed in many paintings throughout the years.

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The ‘talking mirror’ constructed in 1720 that furnished the home of Maria’s stepmother, the Countess of Reichenstein. Credit: Manfred Scherer / Spessart Museum.

According to the Lohr study group, the glass coffin may be related with the region’s famed glassworks, while the poisoned apple may be associated with the deadly nightshade toxin that grows abundantly in Lohr.

It is unknown where the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs actually started, as Grimm’s fairy tales were frequently an amalgamation of true events combined with fantasy and invention. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the renowned fairy tale has some factual basis.