Brothers Grimm tale

Episode 17. The White Snake

“One good turn deserves another”

Sneakily gorging on some delectable white snake, the king’s servant gains extraordinary powers and begins the journey of a lifetime.

With the help of new faunistic friends, the servant tackles a series of perilous challenges to win the heart of a fair princess.

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Illustration of The White Snake by Arthur Rackham 1867-1939

In this classic fairy tale once again we’ve got a lowly born man seeking the heart of a judgemental royal woman. Ironically, the story perhaps lacked sufficient bite and failed to make much of an impact on us.

However the idea of a white snake intrigued and led us down another rabbit hole…

We hunt down other stories featuring white snakes in Europe to try to discover what it all means and why everyone is chowing down on yummy albino serpents.

White Snake Motif

As well as the famous tale Donkey Cabbages, in their notes the Brothers Grimm mention another German story from their lesser know publication Deutsche Sagen (German Legends). This little known collection of over 500 legends was published in 1816, only five years after their famous fairy tales.

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A copy of German Legends by the Brothers Grimm

In this story a nasty count and his servant eat some white snake and can then understand animals. It’s not helpful in this case though, as the count’s sins fall on his heart and he’s forced to flee as his castle collapses and leaves behind a lake – Seeburg Lake.

The brothers also mention a Scottish story collected by William Grant Stewart in his 1823 work (not 1923 as I said in the podcast!) The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland. In this story the trader Michael Scott (not related) eats the middle piece of a white snake and ends up with second sight, the philosophers stone and goes in competition against the devil, stealing his best workmen.

In trying to cram it all in, and for the sake of brevity, I didn’t really do this story justice but you can find the adventures of Michael Scott in chapter three of Stewart’s book. Link to the book below 👇

On the hunt for the meaning of this strange motif we find a dead-end in Scotland. That’s as far as the Brothers Grimm got, but heading further afield we find ourselves in China which has it’s own impressively rich world of folklore. One of the four great Chinese folktales is called The Legend of the White Snake in which a snake spirit marries a human man and opens a medicine shop.

I Really did not do this story justice in the podcast so if you’re interested in learning more of Chinese folklore, follow the above links and get lost in the legends!

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Depiction of a scene in the Legend of the White Snake by Song Nan Zhan.

Snake in Ritual and Myth

My bible of folklore has so far been The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre by Jack Zipes which I’ve been glued to for a few months now. In it, he mentions how the Brothers Grimm believe fairytales have links to an ancient pagan past.

In a time of animistic worship, stories were told with a spiritual element. As pagan beliefs were replaced by more established religious structures the stories became secularised but the motifs, once of spiritual and ritualistic significance remained, albeit in a now non-religious way.

This idea was in my mind as I read The White Snake and lead me to outlandishly postulate that perhaps Jacob and Wilhelm would have thought that eating a white snake is connected to a pre-Christian ritual.

With this is mind I discovered what is known as the Python Cave in Botswanna, thought by some to be the site of the world’s oldest known human ritual dating back 70,000 years. In the cave is a rock which looks strikingly like a snake, there are cave paintings and spearhead’s have also been found at the site and can be traced from large distances apart suggesting people travelled to the cave with a purpose.

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The python-shaped stone.

So the snake in mythology and spirituality has deep roots. Indeed the snake is the symbol of medicine, the Greek god of medicine Asclepius was depicted with a snake entwined staff (as was the Olympian Hermes). But along with medicine, the snake is also associated with fertility, guardianship and knowledge – and that’s just in Europe and not even going into biblical links!

My theory may be reaching too far for an amateur grimmologist sleuth but I sticking it out there anyhow.

We hope this episode didn’t try to cram too much in and was easy to follow and interesting.

Grimm Reading will return with… The Fox and his Cousin.

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