The Snow Queen in Myth and Literature


By Tala Bar

Another Winter Goddess, who appears even more wicked than Holda, is the Celtic Cailleach, described as "an ugly, crone and hag with the teeth of the wild bear and tusks like a boar". The meaning of the word "cailleach" is said to be "an old woman or a veiled one", and she has only one eye. She was known as a Weather goddess who controls the winds, but particularly she was a Winter Goddess. However, in spite of her supposed wickedness, Cailleach also expressed the other, pagan, side of the Winter Goddess, consistently missing from the stories by Andersen and Lewis. In her deadly, dark character, she kills what is no longer needed (like dry vegetation and sick animals); but in the belly of the frozen earth she holds the seeds of a new beginning. In fact, it is she who creates spring, as well, for all things are born in the darkness of her own womb and from there are brought to light. The nature of Cailleach is transformation, and in some stories, just before spring appears, she washes in a stream and becomes young again. So, when we view the battle between the Snow Queen and young Gerda over Kai's soul and body, we must remember that one is actually an aspect of the other.

Before the appearance of Andersen's and Lewis's modern (i.e. post Renaissance) stories, there existed some Medieval folk tales concerning pagan ideas, which were collected by the Brothers Grimm. But, rather than referring to a Snow Queen, the "snow" epithet is given to the queen's rival in the character of a girl called Snow-White.

The two main stories in which such a girl is the main character are "Snow-White and Rose-Red", and the better known one, "Little Snow-White". In the first story there are two young sisters, who live at the edge of a forest and take part in its life. There are many mentions of the forest in the Grimm's tales, and many characters live on its outskirts, as on the borderline between the civilized and the wild. In such a forest, the two girls find a bear, which is revealed as a prince who had been bewitched by an evil dwarf. Any pagan ideas which may have been used as a basis for this story are highly corrupt. The different colors here stand for a peaceful nature opposing a stormy one, but both girls are considered good and kind. They don't even rival among themselves for the love of the prince, who marries Snow-White while her sister marries his brother. As it is, nothing can be learned from this story except the Christian message that if you are good, you'll have a happy ending.

The other story is very different, and the essence of the myth is quite evident in it. There is one discrepancy in the names of the protagonist/antagonist: as according to Christian dogma, the color white signifies a good ("pure") character, and as such it is given to the girl Snow-White. Her opponent, as in the later stories, is the wicked queen, but significantly, no color is attached to her, as her own had been transferred to her rival.

In spite of the alteration of color, the characters of the two main figures in the story is at accord with both Andersen's and Lewis's stories, and with the ancient myth. The Queen, as befitting a Winter goddess, is as cold as the snow and, although beautiful (and who would say that the snow is not beautiful), she is harsh and cruel, as much as trying in various ways to kill Snow-White. The girl, on the other hand, has a warm and loving nature, as seen in the way she gets along with the dwarves and the animals of the forest. The forest itself takes her away from her civilized life in the Queen's palace, to live close to nature as the ancient pagans did. But, beside the Christian idea that white is good, it is the prince, representative of the Christian patriarchal attitude, who wakes up the girl and not vice versa.

Searching the Net, I find the title Snow Queen bestowed, not with malice but with acceptance, to many persons who, like her, are cold, regal, graceful figures, and who think of themselves as neither good nor evil. It is an epithet of beauty and power, which used to belong to ancient figures of mythology, was corrupted by Christianity, and seems to be returning to its own.


Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen
The Snow Queen by Eileen Kernaghan
C.S. Lewis's The Seven Books of Narnia
Invocation of the Winter Goddess

Norse Goddess of Winter
Holda, Fertility and Winter
Grimm's Snow-White and Rose-Red
Grimm's Little Snow-White
The Death of Llew (a sun symbol)