Almost eight decades later, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has gone through the ringer of conspiracy theories ranging from chauvinism to drugs to recycled villains. I’m here to add one more to the list— paganism. Care to come down the rabbit hole with me?
If you’ve ever read the original Snow White from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales collection, you’ll know that (surprisingly) Disney stayed almost completely true to the source material. Allowing for poetic embellishment, nearly all elements in the movie are taken directly from the story, with one blaring exception: the dwarves’ names. Now, this wasn’t the first time the seven little men were given names— in a 1912 Broadway production they were Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick and Quee. Understandably, the Freudian “ick” brothers and little Quee didn’t quite leave their mark on history. With such an obvious difference between the 1912 dwarves and the infinitely more successful 1937 incarnations, we have to ask— why choose Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey?
The answer begins not with Snow White, but with its honorary predecessor, an animated short called The Goddess of Spring. This was admittedly a trial run for Disney animators, who felt they needed to build up to the ambitions of Snow White. The cartoon depicts an incredibly butchered version of the Greek myth of Persephone. In the short, the singsong “Goddess of Spring” is taken from her family of woodland creatures by the devil (I think they actually call him Hades once or twice) who eventually lets her go back for half of every year to bring life to the upper world. This of course is how the Greeks (and apparently Walt) explained the change in seasons.
Despite others’ worries that something so blatantly pagan would be poorly received, good ol’ Mr. Disney went for it anyway. Given that this cartoon was the trial run for Snow White, is it so left-field to suggest Disney would have a similar theme for the actual feature? No, hypothetical questioner, it isn’t.
I’ll cut the chase here. In most Greek mythology variations the entrance to Hades (the place this time, not the person) is guarded by (among many other things) seven beings: the personifications of Death (duh), his brother Sleep, Agony, Anxiety, Fear, Disease, and Guilty Joys. Now, you can’t very well make a family cartoon featuring Agony and Fear, can you. You can, however, make them silly little men and name them Doc (Anxiety), Grumpy (Agony), Happy (Guilty Joys), Sleepy (um, Sleep), Bashful (Fear), Sneezy (Disease), and Dopey (Death— as in brain dead; I mean, the guy can’t even talk!).
That’s right, folks. Those seven dwarves are not there to provide refuge to a lost soul, but rather to welcome that lost soul into the afterlife. My guess? In Disney’s mind, The huntsman succeeded. It’s not Snow White fleeing into the woods, it’s her deceased spirit. You got it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the story of a dead girl.
As for the prince, in this Greek mythology context it’s now easy to see the butchered version of the tale of Orpheus, the man who sung his way into the underworld to retrieve his wife. The only two scenes with the prince are (1) singing his way to Snow’s heart, and (2) singing her back to his big shiny castle in the sky. As for the queen, the whole reason Orpheus had to go to the underworld was the death of his wife. Death by poisonous viper. Apple, anyone?