Märchen Monday: Die weiße Schlange (The White Snake)

This is not a post about the British rock band! Whitesnake definitely did not get its name from Die weiße Schlange. If you are more familiar with urban legends about the band than with today’s Märchen, here is your chance to read it in German, English, and sixteen other languages.

Märchen (and Myth) Memories

I had never read Die weiße Schlange before this year. But the second part of it reminded me very strongly of another story that was familiar: the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. After Psyche betrays Eros’s trust, she has to perform four impossible tasks to win him back. She succeeds only because animals — and some supernatural forces — help her. In the end, she gets her husband back and becomes an immortal. The second half of Die weiße Schlange is a similar story: the hero must prove that he is worthy of a great love.

If I had also grown up with Norse myths, the first half of Die weiße Schlange would have made me remember Siegfried or Sigurd. Like the hero of this Märchen, he could understand the speech of animals. And he received this power after drinking dragon’s blood (Source).

The third ancient story that we see reflected in Die weiße Schlange is from the Hebrew Scriptures. A snake that can give you great knowledge and power if you eat it? When our hero took a bite at the beginning of this Märchen, I worried that the next event would be a Fall.

Going Back to Grimm

But snakes are not always symbols of evil. Several thousand years after a serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden, we heard that we must be not just innocent like doves, but also wise like serpents. (Source) And in Die weiße Schlange, we see that after our hero eats the white snake, he is not just wise, but also kind. He is clever enough to save himself and compassionate enough to save others. Although he has served a great king, he does not hesitate to serve the most helpless animals.

It may seem like a contradiction when he kills his horse to feed the baby ravens; but for me, this was his most Christ-like action. I immediately remembered St. Augustine’s interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the donkey that bears the wounded man is the Body of Christ Himself. (Source) And today I found a similar gloss from St. Bede. (Source) It would have made no sense for the hero of Die weiße Schlange to rescue the ravens by giving them a ride on his horse! But when he sacrifices the horse, which symbolizes his body, the connection to Christ is just as close. And in the end, it is the ravens who bring him the Apfel vom Baume des Lebens — the apple from the tree of life.

Next Märchen Monday: Frau Hölle

Read it here: Link

4 thoughts on “Märchen Monday: Die weiße Schlange (The White Snake)

  1. “The White Snake” was always one of my favorites growing up, although I didn’t remember the Tree of Life reference (and possibly had read it in a version that dropped that reference). I did grow up on Norse myths, so the Sigurd allusion was always part of what I liked about it. The story’s a bit bloodier than I remembered; quite a few animals die in it (the horse-killing is what particularly stopped me short, but I like your interpretation).

    I too find it interesting that the youth succeeds not from the bare fact of having grown wise but from the fact that this makes it possible for him to be kind and merciful in ways he would not otherwise have been able to be, which in turn allows him to achieve things that others would not have.

    The Christological interpretation works well here, in part because using the shared apple from the Tree of Life as a symbol of marriage links up well with marriage as a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      Do you remember how you first read or heard The White Snake? I was fairly well-read as a child and never ran into it. I imagine that the horse-killing made editors hesitate to include it in new collections!

  2. I don’t remember how I first came across The White Snake; but I do remember the snake, the ants, and the fish very vividly — and I read a lot of myths and legends, so that means it stood out very clearly. I wonder if it was indeed the horse-killing that drew people up short.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      I write positively about it in the post, but when I was actually reading the story and got to that point, I was horrified!

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