Updated: Sep 11, 2019
A recently found Barvarian gravestone has renewed interest in the striking similarities between a young noblewoman’s life and that of the Snow White.
A museum in Barvaria recently placed on display the gravestone of Maria Sophia vonErthal, who lived during the 18th century and is believed to be the inspiration for the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When it was moved in the 1970s during renovations of a local hospital where it was being stored, the headstone was thought lost, until it recently resurfaced when a local family, who had taken the gravestone into their safekeeping, donated it to the Diocesan Museum.
The Grimm brothers lived just 60 miles from Sophia’s town, and it’s believed that they may have heard of her story from those who had known her or had grown up with family members who were familiar with her story. And it’s true that there are many striking similarities between Sophia’s life and that of Snow White.
For instance, when Sophia’s mother died when she was still relatively young, her father, Baron Philipp Christoph vonErthal, quickly remarried a domineering woman who reportedly favored her own children over that of the Prince’s.
One of Philipp’s gifts to his new wife was a trick mirror that reverberated the voice of the person who spoke into it, making is sound as if one's voice was being repeated back by the mirror itself. Even more chilling, painted into the upper right circle at the top of the mirror was the words “Amour Propre,” French for “self love." According to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, unlike more healthy forms of self love, Amour Propre was considered to a corrupt form that arose when comparing oneself to others. Therefore, by inscribing this sentiment on the mirror, Philipp was warning Sophia's stepmother to not admire her beauty too much, or compare it to another, lest it lead to vice and suffering.
Other details of the local region have also been found to "mirror" (pun intended) those described in the fairy tale. For instance, the region was known for its lush apple orchards, hence the reference to the poisoned apple that Snow White ate, which led to her sleeping sickness.
Also, the Baron’s castle was situated near a wild forest that bordered a series of mines, which were worked by children or short adults (dwarfs) who could easily squeeze through the small gaps in the local mine shafts. Indeed, Sophia was popular during her lifetime for providing assistance and charity to the poverty-stricken mine workers.
Also similar to the fairy tale, when Sophia’s stepmother would not let her marry, she left the castle to live with one of the local mining families (i.e., the seven dwarfs). But it is from this point that Sophia's tragic life and the fairy tale diverge. Not long after her move, she contracted varicella pox, which left her blind (not sleeping). She later moved to a local convent where she lived out the rest of her days, dying at the age of 71. But unlike the happy ending in the fairy tale, she did so without ever having found her prince charming.
To view Snow White’s mirror, visit the Spessart Museum in Lohr am Main, Germany
To view Snow White’s gravestone, visit the Diocesan Museum in Bamberg, Germany