Murder on the dance floor: your first freaky fairy tale
Imagine dancing… until you died. Or being burned alive as you smiled prettily for your many guests.
My most chilling imagining of fairy tales came from this particular story, so it made sense to me to use as my very first ‘freaky fairy tale’ addition.
As a nerdy child, I’d often go and seek out the original tales behind the Disney movies and, luckily, most of the dodgier sexual aspects went straight over my nerd head. But this one… was a little different.
‘Schneewittchen’ seems to have been an oral folk tale in the rural regions of what is now Germany which was likely from around the Middle Ages and could have come into being in the 16th century or even earlier, before it was later written down by the Brothers Grimm. In it, Snow White’s beauty basically comes from blood magic (three drops of blood on her mother’s embroidery) and she proves to be not half as intelligent as she is easy on the eye by letting the same crone try and kill her three times with a comb, corset ribbons and eventually the apple that did the trick. Third time’s a charm…
But the main difference between the Disney version and the, well, grimmer one was the queen’s ending. In the 1930’s movie you had the queen trying to kill Snow White and the dwarves with a boulder and that same boulder rolls backwards and kills her instead. That’s pretty clear-cut. Those who live by the rock, died by the rock. Maybe she should have chosen paper or scissors instead.
But in the original tale the morality is far less black and white. Picture this: a prince comes riding past who sees a pretty lady in a glass coffin. No big deal. He tries to revive Snow White, no dice, but then decides he actually prefers his pretty things inanimate so he pays the dwarves for her and they freakin’ accept payment. What does that make Snowy? You ain’t gonna see that in a Disney movie. But then the apple dislodges in her throat en route to the palace and she revives, the prince proposes , the queen’s crime is exposed and all is hunky dory.
Now get this: it is Snow White’s idea to give the queen a fitting punishment. She orders iron shoes to be placed in a stove until they are red-hot and then has the queen dance at their marriage feast in the red-hot shoes until she falls down dead in front of all the guests.
No, I did not make that up. Snow White, singer to birdies, did.
When I was a child the image haunted me. It’s still horrific twenty years later, in fact. I can of course now see the elegance of such a punishment – in that culture, publicly deposing of the previous monarchy was an important way to show strength as a new ruler and at feasts such as royal weddings, you would have a mix of commoners and influencers, neighbouring royalty and all of it there to see. It was also a well-known show of acceptance of the marriage that the groom’s mother or father or both would dance at the celebration. So yeah, a great move – if you’re a psychopath.
Another thing I found interesting about Snow White was its parallels with many African cultures. I know what you must be thinking – a story all about being whiter than White (sorry, someone had to say it) and here this crazy chick is talking about Africa. Stay with me.
All these details and more leapt out at me when I was older as someone who has grown up in Africa. If you look more closely, the conventions of a communal, what some may call ‘primitive’ society are all there and are still being practiced in several nations around the world.
Essentially, the earlier Snow White tales is the portrait it paints of women’s practices in pre-Christian Western Europe, where the story may or may not have initially come from. Way back, both Gaul and Germania were rather badly conquered Roman colonies that were considered ‘savage wilds’ by the civilised world. There were strong ties to what we now consider ‘primitive’ and themes which I as an African can easily recognise. For one, the portrait painted of ‘Schneewittchen’ is of a time in which a woman was basically owned as property by her mother or stepmother and then later by her mother-in-law. This is still the case in many cultures here in Africa, and in the initial stories of Snow White it would have been unusual and cruel but totally within the queen’s rights to demand her stepdaughter’s heart. In there, she happily eats down a pig’s heart and lungs and liver all to absorb the girl’s beauty, classic ancient witchcraft, and something that is still practised in many cultures in Africa today.
Another thing which would seem completely inexplicable to the average Westerner nowadays is why this dumb broad kept letting the same murderous grandma in. But this comes back to the ancient laws of hospitality. In smaller, more rural cultures without official forms of law enforcement like it was back in those days, laws of hospitality were hugely important and considered sacred above all else. This can be traced all the way back to ‘xenia’ in ancient Greece. The harshest cautionary tales of punishments from the gods, faeries and everyone else were for anyone who refused or mistreated guests. And because things were largely ‘survival of the fittest’, respecting the community elders was nearly as important. And so poor Snow White, when faced with an old woman asking to be let in and for some favours, would have culturally had no choice but to obey.
These themes of ‘respect your elders’ and ‘always let guests in and do whatever they say’ are very familiar. Giving a lady molten shoes to jive in? Not so much. Hey, at least the queen had Snow White dying quickly all those times. And what is it with the Brothers Grimm and shoes??
That’s my freaky fairy tale rant of the week. Do you have something about the original Show White that you want to share? Or a fairy tale you want to see sliced open? Let me know and have a freaky Friday tomorrow 😊