The Celtic and initiatic origins of Snow White
by Hasan Andrea Abou Saida
Folk tales, as we have already shown in the previous article on Little Red Riding Hood, are a reminder of ancient initiation ceremonies that were celebrated in primitive tribal communities. According to the thesis of scholars Vladimir Propp and Anselmo Calvetti, most of the constituent elements of fairy tales date back to ‘primitive’ clan rites and myths, to the cycle of youth initiation and to representations of the death and rebirth of the initiate. One of these popular and magical fairy tales, where the memory of an initiation rite is still alive, is the fairy tale of Snow White. The Grimm brothers themselves considered fairy tales to be a remnant of ancient myths that had survived in popular memory and had been handed down orally. Jacob Grimm wrote to his friend Achim von Arnim in 1812: “I am firmly convinced that all the fairy tales in our collection … were already told thousands of years ago … in this sense all fairy tales have been codified as they are for a very long time, while they move here and there in infinite variations”.
In the first version of the fairy tale, transcribed by the Brothers Grimm in their book ‘Kinder und Hausmärchen’ (Children and Housewives) of 1812, the mother of the future girl, after pricking her finger with a spindle, dreamt that she was having a girl as white as snow, as black as ebony and as red as blood. The woman then became pregnant and gave birth to a girl. The mother became jealous of Snow White’s beauty when she turned seven, so she asked a hunter to kill her and bring her the child’s lung and liver, so she could cook them with salt and pepper and eat them. The hunter, however, out of pity, let Snow White go free in the woods and killed a wild boar instead, whose entrails he brought to the Queen as proof of the girl’s death. The queen ate the entrails, believing them to be the girl’s, but discovered the hunter’s trap. Snow White fled into the woods and took refuge in the house of the seven dwarfs. In an attempt to kill her, the mother came to Snow White disguised as an old haberdasher and gave her daughter a poisoned comb. The attempt was foiled by the dwarfs, who pulled the comb out of the girl’s hair. At the second attempt, the mother offered her a poisoned apple, and Snow White bit into it and fell to the ground as if dead. When the dwarfs found her on the ground, they thought she was too beautiful to bury, so they put her in a crystal coffin with the girl’s name engraved in silver letters, and kept her in the house “for a long, long, long time”. A prince, passing by, fell madly in love with the corpse and asked the dwarfs to give it to him as a gift, transported it to his castle and placed the crystal coffin in his flats. The prince sat staring at it all day long, unable to take his eyes off the girl. And when he had to go out and couldn’t look at her, he was in a black mood, and without the coffin beside him he couldn’t eat a bite to eat. The prince’s servants, tired of carrying the coffin back and forth, one day opened the coffin and took the corpse, holding it by the shoulders and shaking it. In this way, Snow White spat out the piece of apple and came back to life. Snow White and the prince decided to get married. When the mother was invited to their wedding, she went to her daughter to try again to kill her, but a terrible revenge awaited her: after having prepared glowing iron shoes for her mother, she was forced to put them on and dance and dance, until her feet were horribly burnt and she could not stop until, dancing and dancing, she fell down dead 1.
The evident traces of a very ancient initiation rite, addressed to the female, appear clearly throughout the Snow White fairy tale. The story of Snow White has profound analogies and similarities with another very ancient Celtic story of Deirdre, a heroine of Irish mythology. Deirdre was the daughter of the royal bard Fedlimid mac Daill. Before she was born, Cathbad, the chief druid at the court of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, prophesied that Fedlimid’s daughter would become very beautiful, but that kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and the three greatest warriors of Ulster would be forced into exile for her sake. Hearing this, many urged Fedlimid to kill the child at birth, but Conchobar, excited by the description of her future beauty, decided to keep the child for himself and raise her in an isolated fortress, where she should see no man until the king himself came to take her as his wife. Deirdre grew up in safety in the fortress, but one winter day, when the old caretaker killed a fawn on the doorstep of the fortress, the girl saw a raven drinking the blood from the snow. She then asked her nurse: “My dear, be honest. Where is that man who has skin as white as snow, cheeks as red as blood and hair as black as a raven’s wings? Please, Lewara, tell me, is there such a man in the world? I want to love him, and he will have to love me”. Lewara told her that he was describing Naoise, a handsome young warrior, hunter and bard in Conchobar’s court. Deirdre met Naoise and they fell in love. In order to get away from King Conchobar, Deirdre together with Naoise’s brothers, Ardan and Ainnle, and the three sons of Uisneach, fled to Scotland, where they lived a happy life hunting and fishing peacefully. But King Conchobar, humiliated and furious, sent Fergus mac Róich to them with an invitation to return to the king. Deirdre and Uisnech’s sons took refuge in Emain Macha thanks to Fergus, but Conchobar called his warriors to attack the Red Branch house where Deirdre and Uisnech’s sons were staying, killing Naoise. After Naoise’s death, Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife, but after a year, grief-stricken at the loss of her lover, she threw herself desperately from a running wagon and died 2.
Both stories have many similarities, but it is very likely that the esoteric aspect of the two stories is connected to female initiation rites. According to the Hungarian anthropologist Angelo Brelich, female initiation, unlike male initiation, takes place in two moments of profound transformation: puberty occurs, unequivocally, from one moment to the next, with the first menstruation, while marriage, and consequently childbirth, totally transforms the physiological and social conditions of the woman. Female initiations are often associated with, and often confused with, puberty and wedding rites. As with male initiations, the most important ritual element in female initiations is segregation in the forest or in a hut. The young initiate is entrusted to an elder or to several persons who assist her and instruct her in purely feminine tasks, including those related especially to sexual life and motherhood. During the period of segregation, the initiates learn songs and ritual dances, as well as certain typically female trades, such as spinning and weaving. The final ceremony of female initiation, just as essential as the segregation rite, is the procession and the acclamations of the women who welcome the initiate. In this way, the girl is solemnly presented to the community as an adult, ready to assume the role of a woman 3. Traces of a primitive initiatory institution, predating the pre-Mycenaean era, are found in Athenian ceremonies of the 5th century BC. In the verses of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of the chorus, addressing all the citizens, extol the education they had received from the city-state, saying: “As soon as I was seven years old I immediately became arrephoros; after that, I was aletris, at ten years of age, in the (service of) archegetis; and after that, having the saffron-coloured dress, I was arktos in the Brauronia; and I became kanephoros, finally becoming a beautiful maiden, having the row (necklace? ) of dried figs” (Aristophanes, Lysistrata 641). This famous passage represents the most important testimony on the arrephoroi. The arrephoric ritual was part of a dense series of religious festivals that followed one another during the year and had a “preparatory” character in function of the Panathenae, according to more archaic ritual patterns, probably connected with the cycle of Nature. The ‘Arrephoros’ were young girls aged between seven and twelve who served as acolytes and worked in the service of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens, and were charged with conducting specific rituals. The Arreforia were celebrated in the month of Syrphorion (mid-June to mid-July), in honour of Athena Poliàs. According to the Greek writer and geographer Pausanias the Periegete, two Arreforia virgins, aged between seven and eleven, already in the service of the goddess, were chosen during one night of the month of Sychroforion, after Athena’s priestess had given them secret objects to wear on their heads (unknown even to the bearers); they were then accompanied to a natural underground passage located under the sanctuary of Aphrodite of the Gardens. Here they placed the sacred objects and received something else to take with them outside on their return. The harbingers chosen during the segregation in the Acropolis of Athens wore white robes adorned with gold and their diet was based on a particular type of flatbread. They were also responsible for weaving the peplos (Greek women’s dress) that was offered to Athena Poliàs every four years to renew her clothing 4. The term ἀρρηϕόροι with its variants ἐρρηϕόροι and ἐρσηϕόροι, of obscure etymology, is probably an archaic synonym of κανηϕόροι (basket bearers). From the Greek inscriptions, one recognises arrephorias for other deities, such as for Athena and Pandrosus, for Gaea Themis, for Ilithyia, for Demeter and Kore, and for the epidaurian festivals. According to the philologist Ludwig Deubner, the two events of descent and ascent took place in different periods: the first would take place in June-July and consist of a gift to the goddess to obtain fertility, while the second would take place in autumn, the season linked to the descent into the underworld and to death 5.
In the Snow White tale, for example, the mother is sewing on an ebony piece of furniture, she pricks her finger and three drops of blood fall on the snow. She says that the child she would give birth to would have three colours: white as snow, red as blood and black as ebony, the same colours as in the Irish myth of Deirdre. The sequence of colours refers analogically to the three phases of the alchemical work, namely Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo, the initiatory path of inner transformation. In Snow White, the girl leaves her father’s house because of the malevolence of her mother/step-mother at the age of seven, thus taking the first step on a female initiatory journey within the community. The killing and consumption of the boar’s parts by Snow White’s mother/step-mother is the transposition of the symbolic killing of the initiate through the substitutive sacrifice of an animal, whose meat is consumed by the officiants of the rite. The substitution of Snow White with a wild boar, which suddenly emerges from the bushes of the wood before the hunter, is related to the Celtic tradition and the symbolic meaning of the animal 6. For the Celts, the boar is an animal with a very complex symbology, connected to wisdom, knowledge, healing, truth and loyalty; a messenger between the Underworld and the human world, it is the representation of the Druidic priestly class. Furthermore, the boar is the bearer of fertility and fecundity, the symbol of the Mother Goddess, the divine Nature of the earth linked to the lunar cycle, but it is also linked to the solar cycle, the male deities, the reproductive frenzy and the aggressiveness of warriors. It therefore becomes a symbol of abundance, nourishment, hospitality, celebrations and social gatherings, fertility, health and protection from danger, power and vitality 7. In the myth of Deirdre, on the other hand, the old caretaker kills a fawn as a ritual sacrifice, a spirit animal associated with the Mother Goddess, the fertility cult, rebirth and the Druid caste. Deer were considered by the Celts to be intermediary spirits between the world of the gods and the world of men, messengers and guides to the Otherworld 8. Like every initiate, Snow White wanders through the forest in search of herself, the home of the Lord of the Animals, the Spirits of Nature and the Ancestors. Tired and hungry, the maiden finds the Seven Dwarfs’ cottage, a chthonic place where the initiate will have to remain in isolation for a long period of time, just as Deirdre did in the fortress and the Arrefore did in the Acropolis of Athens.
Snow White begins her apprenticeship in the domestic arts as a future wife and woman in the dwarfs’ house. The Seven Dwarfs work all day and return home only at sunset, and during the day they search for precious metals in the underground tunnels. The dwarves are spirits of the Earth and represent the Ancestors of the Clan. Just like an initiate who finds herself inside a hut, Snow White is placed under the protection of the Ancestors who guide her on her initiatory path. Finally, the fairy tale narrates of Snow White’s death from a poisoned apple given to her by her mother/step-mother disguised as a peasant girl: here another ritual death takes place that marks another fundamental passage in the initiate’s spiritual journey (a higher degree than that of the Arthurs). The poisoned apple causes the initiate to fall into an altered state of consciousness, a deep sleep, confirming the use during primitive initiation rituals of a hallucinogenic and psychotropic substance such as the mushroom Amanita Muscaria or a fermented apple. In this way, the initiate’s spirit can fly away from the body and meet the spirits and Ancestors in the Spiritual World. At the awakening-rebirth, the initiate Snow White is finally admitted into the community as an adult member and as a woman capable of giving life 9.
In conclusion, the fairy tale of Snow White and the Celtic myth of Deirdre hide in their plots deep primitive initiatory secrets connected to the feminine world and the power of the Great Mother.
1 Grimm, J. e W. (1993). Fiabe del focolare. Milano: CDE.
2 Monaghan, P. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Facts On File, p. 122.
3 Per maggiori approfondimenti vedi: Brelich, A. (2008). Le iniziazioni (E. riuniti U. Press, ed.).
5 ARREFORIE. Enciclopedia Italiana, https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/arreforie-o-erreforie_%28Enciclopedia-Italiana%29/ (last visit 14/06/2021).
6 Calvetti, A. (1987). TRACCE DI RITI INIZIATICI FEMMINILI NELLE FIABE DELL’ORSA, DI PELLE D’ASINO E DI BIANCANEVE. Lares, 53(1), 111-124. Retrieved June 14, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44630337
7 Taraglio, R. (2005). Il vischio e la quercia : la spiritualità celtica nell’Europa druidica (Nuova). Torino: L’età dell’acquario, p. 344.
8 Ivi, pp. 340 – 342.
9 Calvetti, A. (1987). TRACCE DI RITI INIZIATICI FEMMINILI NELLE FIABE DELL’ORSA, DI PELLE D’ASINO E DI BIANCANEVE. Lares, 53(1), 111-124. Retrieved June 14, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44630337
Brelich, A. (2008). Le iniziazioni (E. riuniti U. Press, ed.).
Eliade, M. (2020). La nascita mistica: riti e simboli d’iniziazione. Brescia: Morcelliana.
Monaghan, P. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Facts On File.
Wasson, G. (1968). Soma: divine mushroom of immortality. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.