The Grimm Brothers’ “The White Snake”: A Feminist’s “Adam & Eve”? by Jeri Studebaker


Me, 2013I was trying not to fidget as I sat on the hard, unforgiving walnut pew.  It was a gorgeous summer day out, and I was locked inside breathing stale air and with nothing to look at but the dreary speaker, and, behind him, a life-sized, picture of a sweet-looking man about to be hung from nails driven through his hands.  I was visiting my parents, who love to take me to church, and I just wasn’t able to say no.

As I sat I daydreamed about our indigenous European ancestors.  They did “church” outdoors, in fragrant, airy forests with wild bluebells, warbling birds, and gentle breezes caressing their skin, ears and eyes.  Instead of doing hard time on walnut benches, they got to dance, chant, hold hands and jump through fires.

I thought too about how some fairy tales expose the differences between Christianity and ancient pre-Christian religions.  Take the Grimm Brothers’ “The White Snake” for example: rattling around in this fairy tale is almost everything in the Adam and Eve story, from the snake, the apple, and the garden, to the Tree of Life and the two lovers.  And in each story it is the same two items — the snake and the apple — that transport the tale to its final ending.  Other than that, however, the two tales’ conclusions are as different as a day at the beach and a week with the flu, with the Grimms’ characters being blessed with everlasting contentment while Jehovah’s are cursed with eternal damnation.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528, oil on wood panel (transferred), Detroit Institute of Arts.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528, oil on wood panel (transferred), Detroit Institute of Arts.

The differences between the two tales don’t end here.  Unlike Eve, the woman in “The White Snake” doesn’t hog the apple all to herself — she shares it with the man.  It’s this sharing of Aphrodite’s Apple of Love that triggers the woman’s feelings for the man, and is partially responsible for the tale’s happy ending: “They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.”  Of course for eating that same apple, Adam and Eve were consigned to never-ending misery.

A recap of the story of Adam and Eve: In the beginning the two lived blissful lives in the Garden.  All day long they propped their feet up, ate, drank and made merry.  Only one thing was forbidden them: the apples dangling off the Garden’s Tree of Life.  When the snake sashayed on stage and sweet-talked Eve into biting into the forbidden fruit, God threw a tantrum:  “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life….” Gen. 3.17-18.

Other striking differences between the two tales center around the snake.  Jehovah’s snake deals only with Eve, never Adam, who’s a passive, do-nothing kind of guy.  Not so in “The White Snake.”  The White-Snake man – one of the king’s servants – stealthily munches on a piece of the mysterious white snake the king dines on alone every night, after which he (the servant) can suddenly understand the speech of animals.  So, unlike the Biblical snake, the white snake gives its humans not something harmful, but something of marvelous value.

“The White Snake”

“The White Snake”

Soon the servant puts the snake’s gift to good use.  After he’s accused of stealing the queen’s ring, he overhears a duck admitting she swallowed the piece of jewelry, whereupon he quickly retrieves the ring and returns it to Her Majesty.  As a reward, the king gives the servant a horse to travel the countryside.  During his travels the man overhears various animals lamenting their troubles, and he helps all of them: fish suffocating out of water, ants being squashed by horse hooves, and ravens starving to death.

Eventually our hero rides into the land of a king searching for a man to marry his daughter; whosoever can complete a few (next-to-impossible) tasks will win the princess’ hand.  (Like Heide Gottner-Abendroth, I believe fairy tale princesses are symbols for goddesses, so this princess too would be a goddess, and the servant would be her heros, or mortal lover.)  With the help of his animal friends the servant passes all tests: the fish help him locate a ring the king flings into the sea, the ants help him gather millet strewn on the ground, and when the princess herself strolls into her garden and challenges the servant to bring her the “golden apple from the Tree of Life,” it’s the ravens who help the man complete this final task:

The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever … though he had no hope of finding it….  He came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched … upon his knee, and said, “We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; … we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.”

We already learned that it’s the sharing of this apple that lands the man and woman smack into Paradise, for forever and ever.

In sum, “The White Snake” is about humans, animals and deities working together to achieve elegant life outcomes for all.  In contrast “Adam and Eve” is about a passive male burned by a demonic woman who trusted a ‘dumb’ animal.  Whoever created the Grimm story seems to be saying “See, this is how we Europeans did things in the past: we didn’t start people in The Garden and kick them out for making mistakes.  We did it the other way around — started people out with nothing, dropped obstacles in their paths, and then let them work through the obstacle course and finally waltz into Paradise.”

To that, I say, “Amen!”

Sources Cited
Gottner-Abendroth, Heide.  1995.  The Goddess and Her Heros.  Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony Publishing Co.

This is a modified excerpt from Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, published Feb. 2015 by Moon Books, and available at most online bookstores.

Go here to read the complete text of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale #17, “The White Snake”: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/authors/grimms/17whitesnake.html

____________________

Jeri Studebaker, author of Breaking the Mother Goose Code and Switching to Goddess, has advanced degrees in archaeology and anthropology.  She is a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.  

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Categories: Academy, Bible, Evil, Folklore, Goddess, Myth

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16 replies

  1. I am fascinated by this Grimm tale (which I am eager to read in full) and the parallels and contrasts between the story and the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

    As I am very familiar with the latter, I want to note that in fact Eve does share the apple with Adam. And God does confront both Adam and Eve. During this confrontation Adam makes his lame-**s excuse. “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Adam also suffers consequences, though Eve’s are far more onerous. God to Adam: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

    Both quotations are from the King’s James version whose thunderous (and often beautiful) language terrified and impressed me as a child. (Episcopal minister’s daughter). I was also an avid reader of fairy tales. My first novel The Wild Mother is a fairytale retelling of the story of Adam and Eve and Lilith.

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    • Thank you for your input, Elizabeth, and for pointing out my error. As I opened the article in FAR this morning, I was actually struck with the nagging suspicion that I had made the very mistake you spotted. As I scanned the article, I thought to myself, “Was it only Eve who ate the apple? Didn’t Adam also take a bite or two?” Because I grew up steeped in Christianity (Church of the Brethren, one of the Anabaptist peace churches), I sometimes jump to the erroneous conclusion that I know (and remember) everything about it – which is what I did here.

      I’ll need to get a copy of your The Wild Mother. I’m tempted to ask whether it ends on a happy note the way The White Snake does — but am not sure I want to ask to have the ending spoiled for myself!

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  2. I really enjoyed this, Jeri, thanks!

    The post was synchronous, too, as I just finished reading two books by Maria Tatar — “The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales” and “The Annotated Brothers Grimm” — and was struck by how most fairy tales (aka wonder tales) apparently originated from women (spinning, doing household chores, etc) and that made me step back and take a completely different view of the tales themselves.

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    • Thank you too, Darla, for your feedback! Yes, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm got almost all their 200-some tales from women. And the first picture of Mother Goose — printed in 1697 by the Frenchman Charles Perrault — shows her sitting by a hearth spinning while she tells tales to three children. Later Mother Goose was almost always shown as an old woman, but in this first picture she’s a young peasant. This early picture was the frontispiece for the first book with Mother Goose in its title: *Tales of Mother Goose*.

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  3. Thanks, Jeri, for bringing this fairy tale to our attention here at FAR. The striking parallels and striking differences really beg for greater analysis. Wow!

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    • I think you’re right, Nancy — it would be interesting to take this analysis further. Very few researchers and writers I’ve read think fairy tales are as old as the Adam and Eve story, so chances are “The White Snake” was created at some point after the Biblical story. Through the years, though, several intellectuals (including Jakob Grimm himself) have contended that fairy tales are primarily Pagan-based oral literature — I’m by no means the first to say it. So the idea that “The White Snake” might have been consciously created in order to dramatize the differences between Paganism and the Pagan-unfriendly, newcomer Christian religion, is not as unlikely as it might first seem.

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  4. In the case of the Grimm tales, it is important to take account that the Grimm brothers shaped the tales and continued to reshape them during their lifetimes. Thus there is a layer or layers of interpretation standing between the (alleged) grandmothers who told tales and the written tales. This is always true when oral tales are written down, but the Grimm brothers were not working as anthropologists interested primarily in recording what they heard as they heard it. They were interested in retelling and reshaping what they heard for the audience they hoped would buy their books.

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    • Carol, you’re right: the Grimms changed many of their tales over time, through seven successive editions. Mostly they removed anything suggestive of sexual intercourse, increased the harshness of the punishments for villains, and embellished their stories.

      Most people today have read only the final 1857 edition of the Grimms’ tales. However, just last year Jack Zipes, one of American’s foremost authorities on fairy tales, published (2014, Princeton U. Press), a translation of the tales as the Grimm’s originally jotted them down from 1812-1815, i.e., before they made so many changes. Here’s an example of how they embellished parts of “The White Snake”:

      1857 version (from my article above): “The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever … though he had no hope of finding it…. He came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched … upon his knee, and said, “We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; … we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.”

      First 1812 version: “…she liked him but demanded that he perform a third task: he was to fetch an apple from the Tree of Life. As he stood there and thought about how he might get it, one of the ravens whom he had fed with his horse came and brought the apple in its beak.”

      Actually, the Grimms originally were very interested in publishing their tales exactly as they heard them (mostly from their German neighbors, both male and female, young and old, peasant and upper class as well). Their early editions of their tales however were frowned upon, and they bowed to the wishes of their readers to make the tales more suitable to 19th-century middle-class sensibilities.

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      • Thanks, Jeri. I was about to tell Carol that the Grimms’ original reason for collecting these tales was a cultural part of the nationalism sweeping Europe at the time and that it was scholarly in tone. But you gave a lot more info than I could have provided, since mine came from the time when I was a graduate student in the 1970s. During that time, I worked with Jack Zipes on the journal “New German Critique” (he was one of three editors). So I’m very interested to hear Jack’s new book. I read his first one on fairy tales, but haven’t kept up since then. I will take a look at the latest. Thanks.

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  5. Carol’s correct. The Grimm brothers were primarily linguists intent on researching the German language. They collected these “household tales” (their proper name) in an effort to preserve and strengthen Christian morals and behavior in 19th-century Germany. It’s as highly unlikely that they were closet pagans as it is unlikely that the court of Le Roi Soleil was pagan or that Hans Christian Andersen was a closet pagan. Fairy tales (which seldom have fairies in them) are their own literary entities and teach their own lessons. They’re not purveyors of hidden co-called pagan codes.

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    • Barbara, the Grimm brothers didn’t collect their tales to “strengthen Christian morals” but to unify the German people, among other reasons. As they published successive editions of their tales, Wilhelm did modify many of them in order to make them suitable for German children, but I’ve read nowhere that Wilhelm’s purpose (or Jakob’s) had anything to do with Christianity. In fact, more than one of the Grimm tales make Christian clergy out to be the “bad guy” in the story.

      Also, Jack Zipes, one of America’s foremost experts on German fairy tales, disagrees with you about fairy tales and Paganism. According to Zipes, professor emeritus of comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and author of dozens of books and articles on fairy tales, “There is enough evidence to indicate that there were strongly held beliefs in pagan goddesses throughout western and eastern Europe that were transformed into [fairy] tales enabling peasants and also members of the elite classes in all regions to contend with their suffering while offering some hope for a better life” (Zipes, 2012. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, p. 76).

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  6. There is nothing like a good story. I think it’s the best way to communicate “truths” or beliefs that are too deep for reason alone, or to just provide a good laugh. I picture the stories being told to communities sitting around a fire on a dark cold winter night (before central heating, schools, or tv.)

    My sense of both stories here is that they are offshoots of older stories that are offshoots of even older stories. The White Snake touches my longing for equality and love in life, and teaches that such a state is enabled when we respect other parts of creation and treat all with compassion. In the Genesis story I picture the local fellows sitting around trying to find a reason for suffering in life, and deciding that it’s all the fault of women! Patriarchy was well established by then. The snake that was a symbol of healing becomes the tempter; women who were healers become the cause of suffering. Each story wrestles with a lived question…and the questions and answers change with the times and the people who create and tell the stories. That for me, is the advantage of stories over lectures or sermons Stories have an inner energy. Thank you for sharing this one, Jeri.

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    • Barbara, I so agree with you: “The White Snake touches my longing for equality and love in life, and teaches that such a state is enabled when we respect other parts of creation and treat all with compassion.” One of the wonderful things about fairy tales is that they do seem to come from a people deeply interested in equality for all: women, children, the poor, the less-than-beautiful (see “Kate Crackernuts”), the less-than-intelligent (see “The Golden Goose”), the elderly. And animals too are to be respected, treated with dignity.

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  7. Thank you for this, Jeri! I am now eager to go read the whole story and look for the original Grimm takes as well!

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Deanne! The original tales were just translated for the first time into English last year. They’re in *The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm*, translated and edited by Jack Zipes.

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