While finishing up the final book in my series, I began to revisit my original inspiration for Opal; the fairy tale Snow White. My ceaseless curiosity began with the mention of three birds that came to mourn over Snow White in her crystal casket: an owl, a raven (or crow), and a dove. That was my first hint that this tale is very, very old, and steeped in symbolism the world has long forgotten. I still can’t answer my original question– what are those birds a symbol of, and why are they important to the tale? I’ve found a few possibilities in myth, including the story of Noah and the flood with his release of a raven and dove, and the Gilgamesh epic, with the release of a dove, followed by a swallow, then a raven. I couldn’t help but relate this grouping of three birds to the three drops of blood spilled by Snow White’s mother, and the three colors that define Snow White both physically and symbolically; “…white as snow, red as blood, and black as ebony wood.” On an interesting note, many swallows are ruddy or reddish in color, or have some reddish coloring somewhere on them, including the Red-rumped swallow and the Barn swallow, both of which occur in Iraq, the present-day location of the Sumerian lands of the Gilgamesh epic. And of course we have the dove, which we most often imagine as white (or an owl, also often white, especially in association with the moon), and the black raven or crow.
Another area of the tale I came to question was the villainous step-mother. I wondered what was going on with this inundation of evil mother-figures (anti-mothers, really) in so many fairy tales, and I decided to undo that part of the myth in my own story. In the version The Young Slave, however, it is not a mother, nor step-mother, but an aunt by marriage that becomes jealous of the girl and ends up abusing her and making her into a slave. Still, it’s yet another account of a woman’s jealousy. Yet there are many other versions, or other tales with strikingly similar Snow White elements that have no wicked-woman figure at all, like that of The Glass Coffin, in which both parents are deceased, leaving the brother to care for his sister, and the only villain is a wizard who cannot stand Snow White’s rebuffal of his advances. This tale, I believe, has many ties to the story of Brynhild and Sigurd, in which it is Brynhild’s father, or the superior male figure she serves as shield maiden, the god Odin, who chastises and then punishes her by way of a curse. She spends quite a few moons (or centuries) ringed by a wall of fire and sleeping the mythic sleep of death, placing her firmly in the realm of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. And beyond the ill-tempered father figure is the betrayal (purposeful or otherwise) by Brynhild’s lover/ intended husband. He both saves her and disowners her, and even in some myths, fights and defeats her, then wrestles her into submission so that she may essentially be raped by King Gunther and taken as his bride. What a lovely Prince Charming! This, of course, mirrors the tale of Sun, Moon and Talia, the sleeping princess who wakes to find herself the mother of twins, born to a king who is already married. The protective flames come in at the end of the tale, when the jealous queen tries to have Talia burned, but is thrown into the fire herself (and so it often goes with the wicked witch).
Nor is this a rare occurrence, the rape of a radiant, often semi-divine ancestor of Snow White. There is the story of Prince Danila Govorila, in which a brother is put under a spell (by another jealous witch) that causes him to wish to marry his own sister (and this, of course, relates to a whole slew of Donkey-skin type fairy tales with incestuous fathers or brothers). Moving further back in time, we find one of Snow White’s oldest beginnings in the form of Chione, a Greek name for “snow.” Now there are various Chiones, or perhaps, various tales of one Chione. The most famous is the one in which both the gods Apollo and Mercury decide to rape her in her sleep on the same day. Then, too, there is the story of Diana (Athena) being offended because either Chione herself (sometimes named Andromeda) or her mother, brags that her beauty surpasses that of Athena’s, which leads to mass destruction (don’t offend the gods!) and a required sacrifice of the girl to a monster of the sea, or to Poseidon. This then relates to the well-known myth of Eros and Psyche. If you recall, Psyche’s beauty also ends up offending the goddess Venus, for which Psyche is tied up as a sacrifice to a dragon-like monster. And if you don’t know how it ends, it is a beautiful, richly allegorical tale I encourage you to read.
Some pedigrees reveal that Boreas, the north wind, is Chione’s father–but in older tales, he was her “consort.” I put consort in quotes because of the myth that sticks out in my mind of Boreas abducting Chione, taking her into the mountains and raping her, with the mountains themselves being named “Boreas’s bed.” In the myth where Chione is the daughter of the ocean and the Nile river, you have a goddess who is raped by a peasant, and later taken to heaven by Hermes and transformed into a snow cloud. And this story immediately set me in mind of the story of Inanna, who woke on a mountain to find She’d been raped by a peasant, and unleashed her wrath until the offender was found. In case you think I’ve gone a bit too far in comparing the ancient goddess Inanna to Snow White, consider the fact that seven non-human creatures called the Annunaki serve as Inanna’s rescuers from the underworld (see Fairytale in the Ancient World by Graham Anderson). Dwarfs, in fact, are not at all essential to the tale, where instead there might be seven brothers, seven robbers, seven giants, seven animals, seven gods… you get the idea. So why not seven Annunaki? Of course, just as often the seven helpers are omitted altogether, or greatly reduced in number, but also consider that Andromeda (mentioned above) went on to have seven sons, and is deified in a constellation, while Athena, Selene and Inanna are all essentially moon goddesses, described as white and beautiful beyond compare, Queen’s of Heaven with seven stars, or seven planetary bodies, following their path through the night sky. Might they be dwarf stars? I kid, but not entirely…
I’ve passed over countless tales that can be easily related to Snow White and its Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, East of the Sun, West of the Moon counterparts, but I’ll only mention one more, one which I found reference to in Lady of the Beasts by Buffie Johnson (one of my favorite go-to books for ancient animal symbolism). “Parts of the legend of the Golden Fleece… were taken from the much older myth of Athamas, king of Boeotia. His children by Nephale (‘Cloud’) escape being sacrificed by Ino, their stepmother, and ride off on a magical golden ram that plunges into the sea.” She goes on to recount how one of the twins, the girl Helle, falls off and drowns in the sea (later to become a protectress of seafareres, just as Inanna was) while her twin brother goes on to sacrifice the ram and present its fleece to King Aeetes. The king, knowing that the fleece is a magical protector of his own life, hangs it on a tree guarded by a dragon. And now we’ve come back to Brynhild in her wall of flames, guarded by a dragon (or a dragon herself), awaiting rescue (or more likely theft and domination) by a king-seeker or a king-pleaser. Inanna can be portrayed as a lamb, or ram, or as a tree protecting/feeding two rams or sheep, while Damuzi, the shepherd, is her consort. And every depiction of this Inanna-tree in art puts me in mind of the Cinderella mother who has died and come back as a tree to aid her persecuted daughter.
The moon, beautiful mother of heaven; Selene with her seven companions, who travels beneath the horizon to the land of the dead, ever to rise again; whose twin is the sun/ her brother Apollo; whose colors vary from white to red to black (in the new moon); whose shape itself deifies the stages of motherhood, from crescent to full to death and loss, like the three ladies called the Fates, often portrayed in gowns of white, red and black. Is the moon itself the face of Snow White, white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony–black as the night sky in which she dwells? I have come to believe so, especially as I gaze upon the Tibetan Thangka on my wall, portraying the White Tara with her crimson smile, star-white flesh and ebony hair, a moon-like halo of a brilliant light behind her head. Later I will tell you the tale of Tara’s Chinese counterpart, Kuan Yin, yet another Snow White, who, like the roots of Cinderella’s tree, dates far back into Chinese history.