Was Snow White a Real Person?

Ever since Walt Disney released his animated classic, Snow White, in 1937, audiences have come to love the story of the ill-fated princess with a happy ending. Most know that the movie was based on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a collection of folk stories Grimm brothers collected from German sources. But most are unaware that the original story of the princess with the snow-white skin may have been based on a real person. If researcher and Snow White expert Dr. Karlheinz Bartels is correct, her name was Maria Sophia von Erthal (we’ll call her Maria, for short).

She was born in 1729 in the town of Lohr, Bavaria (now part of Germany). Her father was a wealthy landowner named Prince Philipp Christoph von Erthal, and her mother was Baroness von Bettendorff. Maria was born in her father’s castle, which you can still visit as the Spessart Museum.

cdn1.pri.org

Family chroniclers for the Erthal family describe Maria as merciful, kind, and charitable. She was well-loved by the people and happy, at least for a time. When she was 14, her comfortable life was shattered when her mother died and her father married Claudia Elisabeth von Venningen, the Countess of Reichtenstein.

Maria’s new stepmother had children of her own, and she favored them over her stepchildren, whose lives she made miserable. She was domineering and cruel, and possibly even vain, just like the evil stepmother in the Disney movie. This is evidenced in the multitude of mirrors she owned. She even had a “talking mirror” that was given to her by Prince Philip. This mirror was made by the Lohr Mirror Manufacture, and its speech was actually sayings engraved in its frame. Claudia’s mirror was engraved with the saying “Amour Propre,” which means “self-love.” If the legends are to be believed, this saying was true of cruel Claudia.

The real Snow White’s story does not include a team of helpful dwarfs, death by poisoned apple, or resurrection by a kiss. But the history of Lohr provides some clues as to how these plot elements ended up in the folk tale.

The dwarfs may come from the nearby mining town of Bieber. The small tunnels could only be reached by small people, so children were often employed as miners. These children often stayed small once they reached adulthood, due to the backbreaking labor and malnutrition. They also were known to wear bright hoods, like the dwarfs in the movie and in many illustrations that depict them.

As for the poisoned apple, the land around Lohr is still covered with apple orchards. The fruit would have been quite common among the people who lived in the area. The belladonna flower, also known as the deadly nightshade, is also abundant in the area and is a well-known poison. Put these two local plants together, and you have the makings of a fairy tale.

There is even a potential origin for the glass coffin that features in the story. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous glassworks in Lohr (one produced the famous mirror), and the area has been known for the quality of its glass products. They could certainly have made a glass coffin, though there is no record of Maria being buried in one.

There is little information available about Maria. We aren’t sure who, or even if, she married, and we don’t know her date of death, though it likely wasn’t by poison apple. The story of Snow White may even be based on a compilation of unhappy German noblewomen. She could even be a complete fabrication. We may never know.

Next Article
ADVERTISEMENT
  • The South’s Most Haunted Plantation

    The plantations of the southern United States are full of terrible history because of their connection with the cruel institution of slavery. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of them are believed to be haunted because of the terrible things that happened on them. The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana may...

    Read More
  • Extinct Penguin Species Never Really Existed

    In 1983, scientists discovered four penguin bones in an archaeological site on Hunter Island in Tasmania. The 750-year-old bones were determined to belong to a previously unidentified species of penguin, which they then dubbed the Hunter Island penguin. As no living Hunter Island penguins existed, the species was declared extinct as soon as it was...

    Read More
  • The Scottish Head Hunter

    Jack Renton followed in the footsteps of many of his fellow Scotsmen when he decided to make his living from the sea. And, like a fair number of his fellow sailors, he found himself shanghaied in 1868 at the age of 20, meaning he was kidnapped and forced to work aboard someone else’s ship. Naturally,...

    Read More
  • Was Alexander the Great Killed by Poison Water?

    For centuries, historians believed that Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and fearless military leader, died after one of his many all-night drinking parties. His drinking buddies reported that he cried out from a sudden, stabbing gut pain and took to his bed, from which he never got up again. He died twelve days later,...

    Read More
  • How a Tea Party Saved an American Regiment

    It was 1776, and Mary Lindley Murray found herself in an awkward position. This wealthy Quaker woman and wife of a wealthy merchant favored the American revolutionary cause. Her husband, however, was a known loyalist and supporter of the British. The Revolutionary War was going on all around her, and she was eventually faced with...

    Read More
  • Ancient Infant Ape Skull Sheds Light on Human Origins

    The lemon-sized skull of a baby ape was recently uncovered by scientists in northern Kenya. Though this at first sounds like an unremarkable find, the skull, which was buried under layers of volcanic ash, is at least 13 million years old. On top of this, researchers believe that it belongs to the earliest common ancestor...

    Read More
  • Was the Delphic Oracle “High”?

    Anyone who has read about or studied Greek history and mythology has heard of the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle was a powerful priestess who spoke prophecies, supposedly after being filled by the spirit of the god Apollo. She supposedly delivered these prophecies while in some kind of trance. Historians and scientists have often wondered...

    Read More
  • Miracle Mike the Headless Chicken

    In September of 1945, Lloyd Olsen and his wife, Clara, a farming couple in Fruita, Colorado, were expecting company for dinner. Clara’s mother was coming for a visit, and chicken was on the menu. Knowing that his mother-in-law enjoyed chicken necks, Lloyd tried to leave as much neck as possible on the rooster he was...

    Read More