Märchen Monday: Die drei Schlangenblätter

Here’s another Märchen from Grimm that you probably have never read before. With a title like Die drei SchlangenblätterThe Three Snake-leaves — that should be no surprise! But as we will discover, it is more than the strange title that put readers off.

Märchen Memories

Do you have any memories of Die drei Schlangenblätter? I definitely don’t! I can’t even think of another fairytale that is vaguely similar. At first, the only story it reminded me of was the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Link) — and they don’t have any elements in common. They do, however, have similar endings.

Later, I also thought of The Swineherd by Hans Christian Anderson. (Link) Like Die drei Schlangenblätter, it has a king’s daughter who is not as virtuous as she should be and whom he punishes in the end. Again, it is the ending that makes both stories so similar.

Going Back to Grimm

We can say that Die drei Schlangenblätter is all about death.

The first half is about physical death, which no one can escape. When the king’s daughter says she will not marry the young man unless he agrees to be buried alive with her if she dies first, she is simply hurrying the inevitable. We also see this in the four candles, four loaves of bread, and four bottles of wine in the tomb — and not just because all will eventually run out. The number four symbolizes the world: four seasons, four directions, four winds, four classical elements, etc. (But note that China recognizes five seasons and five elements!) But this changes when the number three enters the story. There are three Persons in the Holy Trinity and three days in the tomb before the Resurrection. And the young man cuts the Schlangen (snake) into three pieces and revives his dead wife with the three Blätter (leaves).

The second half is about spiritual death, which we can escape. At this point, all the king’s daughter had to do was to be as loyal to her husband in life as she had demanded he be in death. They are already traveling by ship to his father’s house — an allegory of Heaven that I hardly need to explain! But now she betrays him with another man, conspires to murder him, and lies about it. In the end, she has to board another kind of ship for her punishment.

Many Märchen are allegories of a soul going to Heaven, but Die drei Schlangenblätter is an allegory of a soul going to hell.

Next Märchen Monday: Das Tapfere Schneiderlein

Read it here: Link

3 thoughts on “Märchen Monday: Die drei Schlangenblätter

  1. I don’t remember this one, either. It reminds me in some ways of the tale of Sir Melion, the werewolf knight.

    I like your division of the story into physical death and spiritual death; I think that shows it has a great deal more unity than it might seem, given that it seems to turn rather suddenly in the middle. It’s interesting because, while murder is bad, it’s almost secondary here: the real sin is betrayal of the one who was willing to die with her and who brought her back to life; it’s like apostasy.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      I remember your post on Sir Melion! (Link for those who haven’t read it: http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2017/02/a-poem-draft.html) Lost stories like these two are such treasures that I wonder why others didn’t love them enough to pass them on.

      Even Dante gave betrayal a lower place in hell than murder. But he counts adultery as a sin of lust rather than another kind of betrayal. And this reminds me that I came across a criticism of the encyclical Casti Conubii the other day that said Pope Pius XI doesn’t mention the hierarchy of the spouses because it was already quite unfashionable during his reign! Without rereading the Inferno, I’ll guess that Dante’s own choice to put adulterers in the secondo cerchio rather than somewhere in the nono cerchio was poetic license rather than a reflection of his own thoughts on hierarchy in marriage.

      1. Dante, being a love poet, always seems a bit of squish when it comes to sexual sins; although, to his credit, he mocks himself for it on occasion.

        I too wonder why this one isn’t more widely told; it is certainly very striking.

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