#17 “The White Snake”

Analysis and Commentary

by Lois Wilkins, PhD, APRN


Hartman, in his first footnote, guides us in understanding the depth of meaning in the title of his literal translation with the following:  “There is a word-play in the title.  While weiß means white, weis-as a prefix means “knowing” as in Weisheit, “knowledge,” or Weissagen, “prophecy,” “foretelling.”  In addition, “weisek”  “wise” is very close in sound to “weiß,” “white.”  “The White Snake,” then, could be a “wise” or “knowing” snake, at least through sound association.

The Initial Paragraph

The first sentence introduces a “king whose wisdom was famous throughout the whole land.” In addition, he is referred to in lower case “king,” rather than in upper case “King.”  Archetypically, a king signifies the position of the most powerful masculine.  Psychologically, in terms of the individuation process, the king is representative of the sage/wizard energy of the animus, not unlike the symbolism of the king in alchemy. It was said by all in the kingdom that,  “…news [seemed to come] through the air of the most hidden things.” This element of air (pneuma, spirit) is referenced in how information was known by the king. 

Next, an unusual practice is revealed, “Each noonday…a trusted servant had to bring him one more bowl.”  The contents of this bowl were unknown to the servant as the bowl was covered, and the king did not remove the cover until he was alone to eat. This practice of the servant bringing the covered bowl each noonday meal to the king had gone on for a very long time until the servant’s curiosity overtook him.  Instead of carrying the bowl away, he took it to his room where, carefully, he locked his door, then lifted the cover, seeing that it was a white snake that lay in the bowl. 

Unable to restrain himself, he cut off a little piece and put it into his mouth, whereupon no sooner had it touched his tongue, “…he heard an unusual whispering of delicate voices outside his window.”  “His enjoyment of the snake” (Hartman, footnote 2) had given him the ability to understand the language of animals. 

Animals bring forth “the magic wisdom,” as Sandra Schumm shows us in her comments and from her exquisitely embellished textile collage of this tale. The servant, with the gift of understanding the language of all animals, is now set on a hero’s journey, one in which he will demonstrate his true nature.  Historically, magic is a word for power—power that is beyond the reach of the common people.

By a careful reading of this first paragraph, the entire story is laid out. The characters initially identified are representing the masculine—the king and his servant; they provide both elder and youthful dynamics of the masculine.  Without any feminine characters, the wonder emerges of what has happened to the feminine and when/how will the feminine come into our tale. 

A tipping point is present with the time reference of noonday. A tipping point, as many fairy tales and modern day stories, especially those of the master and the apprentice motif, follows expressions of rebellion (think of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Nimble Thief and his Master, just to mention a few), using shadow energies to provide the story’s advancement. Symbolically, noon is the time of day when the sun is directly overhead, therefore, no shadows are present.  It is the time of most potency in the day; the sun is at its zenith and, from there, a natural decline in the energy of the day occurs. Another reference to consider, when unpacking the significance of noon is the saying, “As clear as the noonday sun,” from Psalms 37:6, which alerts us to the dynamics of justice and vindication that will find their way into our tale. The purity of the noonday sun will illuminate any aspects of impurity that emerge in the tale. 

And the snake, a most naturally occurring primitive, phallic representation, therefore, a masculine place holder, will have a place of significance in the tale. 

Elements missing in this first paragraph are the feminine energies; we don’t have a queen, maid, or a princess.  So, the initial direction of the story is from the “one moving toward the two.”  As such, we anticipate, in order for the tale to progress, that the feminine will manifest.

Already set in motion is the alchemical process of the master and the apprentice. The king (master) has held the power by keeping the source of his wisdom secret. The servant (apprentice) grew enough to give into his curiosity and, now, with his new-found wisdom, he has the necessary tools (unbeknownst initially) to challenge the king, his master. His hero’s quest will provide the opportunity for him to produce his own masterpiece (manifesting his own kingdom).  The servant, by taking possession of the bowl and eating the snake, received the source of the king’s wisdom, which until now, had been the king’s secret.  What his actual journey is going to be is unknown; what is known is that the youth/servant, because of taking possession of his wisdom/power, is now on a transformational journey.  

Dramatis Personae: the king, the servant, and the Snake

The king is shown living a prosperous, organized, predictable life.  Routine and structure surround him in his predictability.  His kingdom respects him, and his servant honors him.  There is not a sense of imbalance in his kingdom, and early into the tale, the queen appears, implying validation for the balance. In addition, the king is at the peak of his influence with the reference to “noonday.” In his archetypal role, he is an intra-psychic composite of king, warrior, magician, and lover, worthy of the role of master to his apprentice. Psychologically, it is impossible to completely incorporate energies from the shadow. Yet, with the metaphorical representation of noonday—when no shadows are produced—there is a brief moment in time, when an integrated experience occurs within the psyche.

The servant is the protagonist, as he moves the tale forward.  He does this by making a change in his predictable practice of bringing and removing the king’s bowl after the noonday meal.  He has a Promethean nature, not unlike that of stealing fire from the gods, when he takes a bite of the snake and acquires access to the king’s source of wisdom.  Unlike the king, he requires only one bite of the snake to acquire the ability to understand the language of the animals.  The tale does not tell us what value the king gains by eating the white snake daily.  Here, perhaps, we can intuit an example of the evolution of consciousness…another dynamic of the youth’s masterpiece surpassing that of the king/master.

The white snake provides the catalytic influence of growth and change, in addition to making the natural wisdom of the kingdom available to both the king and his servant. Being a white snake, it represents purity, cleanliness, sacred spirituality, fulfillment of potential (following a destined path), honesty, good omen, illumination, humility, brilliance, safety, and softness. This wisdom was in nature, in the language of animals, not contrived, not knowledge for the sake of knowing, but rather organic, natural wisdom.  Remember the title of this tale and its meaning:  The White Snake is a wise and knowing creature.  

Characters and their symbolic meanings 

The queen appears in our tale, reporting to the king that she has lost her most beautiful ring.  Her ring, a symbol of wholeness, must be found.   Since the servant was suspected of stealing the ring, as he had access everywhere, this crisis of trust provides the opportunity for both the challenge from the king and the hero’s quest for the servant.  Her most beautiful ring, (much like the bowl that holds the snake, as it is presented to the king each noonday and the mussel from the ocean, containing the golden ring that was thrown into the sea), provides symbolic representation of the energies of the feminine and, therefore, wholeness (infinity).

The ducks bring attributes of freedom, as they can walk, swim, fly, and hide for  their safety under water.  They soar through the sky and walk on earth uniting heaven and earth. This travel between the realms is part of their message in the tale as, through their conversation, the servant learns of the location of the queen’s ring. It is by bringing the duck who swallowed the ring (wholeness) to the cook that the potential for the servant’s freedom occurs.

The cook is the alchemist, both in the role of retrieving the ring from the stomach of the duck and in the role of preparing the white snake each day for the king’s noonday meal.

The Three fish, “who had caught themselves in reeds and were gasping for water,”  represent many attributes, some of which are:  creativity, fertility, feelings, rebirth, serenity, good luck, happiness, transformation, health, abundance, intelligence, strength, and endurance. They promote the element of water and, as such, represent the deeper awareness of the unconscious or higher self. The servant, by saving these three fish, is in possession of the attributes that the fish represent.

The Ants, with the lamentation of the ant King, “If only humans with their clumsy animals would keep away from us! That stupid horse with his heavy hooves is trampling my people with out mercy.”  The servant’s response, by redirecting his power (horse), demonstrated a spirit of FairPlay and respect for those in harm’s way.  This act, thereby, reveals the attributes of kinship, purpose, patience, industriousness, and attention to detail in the servant. 

The Horse, one of the gifts asked for by the servant and granted by the king to aid the servant on his journey “to see the world and roam about for awhile,” provided motion, movement until the servant was able to carry himself.  Symbolically, the significance of the horse is in carrying the personal power of the rider.  Power, as found in compassion, caring, and sharing, is found in the tale as the servant encounters those in need. The king, in his willingness to give the horse to the servant, is honoring and supporting the servant’s developing powers.

Travel money is the second gift the servant requests and the king grants. The servant shows his awareness of what he will need.  Money is representative of a method of providing for himself, by the exchange of energy, which is another indication of personal power. The king, in granting these two requests—horse and  travel money—reflects a shift in power for both men.

The Raven family, saved from starvation by the servant sacrificing his horse (power), represents the dynamic of magic. With such magic, the servant is now stronger in the face of the unknown challenges before him and no longer dependent on an external power source.  A change of consciousness is now available to the servant, as he will face the future standing strong—on his own feet.

A Dagger is both a penetrating spear and a cutting, separating tool.  A masculine tool of personal power as it allows our servant, now referred to as a youth, as he has moved from dependency through separating from his horse and using it to provide food for the ravens (magic).  As Hartman tells us, in his Footnote 6, “youthJüngling, a “youth” as opposed to a “boy,” Junge.  I footnote this primarily because this is the first place in the story where the protagonist has been referred to as a “youth,” not a “servant.”  Such shifts in the Grimms’ tales are generally indications of the transformations the character is undergoing.” 

The king’s daughter, the potential prize, seems guaranteed to the youth, until she makes her challenges known.  Both the princess and the youth must prove worthy of each other. The king’s daughter must temper her proud heart, and the youth must learn of the needs/desires of the feminine. The king’s daughter, unlike the suitor, has issues of pride that must be overcome.  Issues of the shadow are present, as we remember that only the king and his servant are present in our first paragraph, when noonday was free of shadows.  Her shadow dynamics, requiring justice and vindication, will be recognized and transformed.  First, by finding the servant worthy, knowing “he is not a prince,” brings the issues of justice necessary for her to marry him and vindication, for both of them, proving their value to each other.  The section, amplifying the three tasks required by her, will show how their worthiness is proven to each other.

The princess, emerging from her role of the king’s daughter toher role of antagonist, demands tasks of the youth to prove his worthiness, as he is not a prince.  The king, in his wisdom, knew the youth had to be tested to find his way from a servant to a youth and a worthy suitor.  He had to accumulate the necessary strengths and support from the world, in order to be successful in proving his worth to both himself and the princess.  Out of her princess persona, she now secures the strength to demand that justice for her proud heart can be served and to receive the vindication for her worthy suitor. 

The astute reader may note, from Hartman’s “Forward,” paragraph eight, printed at the beginning of this series of his translations of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, that he has a different take on the use of the words “king’s daughter” and “princess” than is presented here.   Unlike Hartman’s description of the king’s daughter, I recognize an evolution of consciousness as the king’s daughter moves toward becoming a princess, just as the servant moves toward becoming a youth.  Her task of taming her proud heart, which was bestowed upon her in her role as the king’s daughter, required the movement away from dependency on her father to reliance on her own tamed heart.   By taming her proud heart, her movement away from dependency on her father is not unlike the movement of the servant relinquishing his dependence on his horse.

Tasks/Tests and their significance to the story

To the surprise of the youth, what seemed inevitable—receiving the king’s daughter and ultimately a kingdom—now meets with challenges in the form of three  required tasks: 

1.  Fetching the gold ring thrown into the sea:  An impossible task for the youth, yet, because of his kindness and caring in rescuing the fish, they swim deep in the ocean (unconscious) and bring the mussel shell to the youth, now suitor, which contains the golden ring. The wholeness, represented by the ring is contained in the shell.  Containment in the shell is an indication of an individuation process and holds the promise of the potential for union with the princess. So, represented here is the first stage of our alchemical treatment of this tale. By a single mussel, containing a golden ring of wholeness/infinity, the experience of the psychological dynamic of individuation is represented.  Support for the element of water is present with the imagery of  the ocean, fish, shell, and the ring (infinity). To the dismay of the suitor, the king’s prideful daughter, in her pride imposed, yet, another task. 

2.  Retrieving 10 sacks of millet scattered on the ground: Another impossible task was assigned but, with the help of the ants, it was easily completed by daybreak. In this manner, the need for the support of other energies, specifically that of family, is represented by the ant kingdom. This second element of earth, the grass and the seeds, shows the potential for growth.  The second stage, separatio, can be seen, when the millet is separated from the earth and grass and placed back in the sacks. Once again, the suitor is hopeful of claiming his prize, but the king’s daughter has a third task, for him as she has not yet tamed “her proud heart.”

3.  Getting an Apple from the Tree of Life:  The ravens bring the suitor the golden apple from the tree of life, thus completing the final task.  Now the king’s daughter has grown into a princess, so much so, that she can no longer refuse her worthy suitor.  She accepts her half of the golden apple of life, he accepts his, and they eat it together, whereupon, her “heart was filled with love for him.”  Finally, from an alchemical focus, the lid has been firmly placed on the vessel—the union of the princess and her suitor—guaranteeing their living to “a great age in undisturbed happiness.” 

The third and fourth elements are represented in this task;  the element of air (pneuma, spirit)by the ravens flying to the Tree of Life and dropping the golden apple into the suitor’s hands, and the element of fire, igniting the passions of desire, in the now princess. Remember that the suitor first experienced this passion, when he was blinded by her beauty at first sight of her.  

The golden apple from the Tree of Life, falling into the hands of the servant and shared equally, represents the life-giving reward for both the worthy princess and suitor—the implied King and Queen of their own kingdom.


As with dreams, fairy tales can be viewed from a variety of perspectives.The overarching theme of this analysis is through the portal of the master and the apprentice motif.  Our servant was under the instruction of the king for a long time, before he was overtaken by his curiosity (questioning).  No doubt, he had long wondered what was in the covered bowl but was not drawn to act on this curiosity until he could protect himself (lock his door) in his process of discovery.  This is most interesting, as the king is in possession of all knowledge, “Nothing remained unknown to him…..” With this wisdom,  the king must already know of the servant locking the door, eating the snake, and even of where to find the queen’s ring.  The sagacity of The White Snake has promoted a king (master), ready to support the evolution of the servant (apprentice) in the production of a masterpiece (individuation), whereupon this king will surrender (his kingdom).

The Feminine is represented though the images of the bowl, rings, queen, king’s daughter, princess, apple, earth, and water.

The Masculine is represented though the images of the snake, dagger, king, servant, youth/suitor, fire, and air.

Alchemical applications

The evolution of consciousness, the process of movement from innocence to co-creation, is demonstrated in alchemy, beginning with The Axiom of Maria Prophetissa, “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”  This may be better explained in this manner: from the one of destiny; movement with awareness of the two of duality; to the container of transformation (three), influenced by catalytic energies; producing the fourth, which is destiny, the one.  In the multidimensionality of alchemy, the fourfold nature in each of our characters could be explored, but in keeping with our motif of the master and the apprentice, the following emerges:  One) Kingdom, (destiny for the servant, youth, suitor, and King) as the container; Two) the challenges to the servant from the king, queen, and the king’s daughter exemplify how the heat is turned up (movement into his quest); Three) the collaboration with the animals (nature) as potential for the stopper coming off or adding pressure to the container; and Four) the ultimate transformation in the individuation journey (manifesting his own Kingdom) the One.

Another alchemical portal, found in this tale, is a four-folded process of individuation, for the servant, which follows:

Nigredo (black): This first stage provides for the recognition of shadow presences, archetypal and complex representations, as well as projections.  The tale opens with a recognized absence of shadow, with the reference to noonday. Such an omission acknowledges that shadow energies will emerge as the tale progresses. The servant must experience a fall from grace—as he must betray the king.  He does this by growing more curious (wondering), looking into the bowl (seeing), and then taking a bite of the white snake (tasting).  This shadow moment becomes cathartic for him, as from that moment of betrayal forward, he begins his destiny’s journey.

Albedo (white): This second stage provides an opportunity for communications between the masculine (animus) and feminine (anima) aspects of the psyche.  Awareness happens through illumination of the influence of opposites as our servant/youth begins his hero’s journey.  As the tale unfolds, the queen appears, bringing recognition of balance and an immediate task for the servant to find the symbol of wholeness, i.e., her ring. He accomplishes this by finding and returning her “most  beautiful ring.”  In addition, his confrontations with his true Self, through his journey, brings him to passionate desire for the king’s daughter and to the ability to successfully perform the tasks required to claim her.

Citrinitas (yellow):  This third alchemical stage recognizes the role of a hero’s journey. This requires finding relatedness with the outer world and experiencing issues of transference and countertransference, as both provide opportunities for developing evolving consciousness in relationship with the Self.  The servant requests only what is needed from the king, so he can go out into the world and discover his true persona, his character, his destiny.

Rubedo (red):  This fourth alchemical stage honors the results of the first three processes, which now allow the suitor to live out of his divine destiny (his sacred purpose in life).  The suitor, now recognized as worthy both to himself and the princess, lives out of a persona reflective of his true essence by way of his soul’s journey. From here forward, he will live his life with purpose consistent with his destiny, reaching “a great age in undisturbed happiness.”

Both the individuation journey of the servant (apprentice) and the continuous  transformational journey of the archetypal king (master) supports the sacred process of co-creation*.

The Numerology of the Fairy Tale

The number one is the number for destiny.  The role of the single snake manifests an awareness of destiny’s quest.

Two is the number for the feminine, and in our tale, there is both a queen and a king’s daughter.

Three is the number for the masculine.  In the first paragraph,  the number three is evident in the characters of the king, the servant and the snake; the three encounters with nature in the form of the fish, the ants, and the ravens; and in addition, there are three tasks to be accomplished in winning over the affections of the king’s daughter.

The number four is implied in the first paragraph with the recognition of nature, with the talking sparrows, and with the subtle feminine symbolism of the bowl containing the snake.  By the time we reach the second paragraph of the tale, four is no longer implied, but a reality, as the queen makes her appearance. The king embodies the number four, as within him is a king-warrior-magician-lover.  Our protagonist embodies this four-folded-ness of servant-youth-suitor-King.

In numerology, the number five is symbolic of the energy of a star (universe) and the designator for family. In a lovely magical manner, five is found within the golden apple, as it reveals the five-pointed seed star.  This precious “secret,” the concealed star, is not revealed until both the king’s daughter and the suitor share and eat of the golden apple from the Tree of Life.  In this manner, the tale both begins and ends with the revealing of a “secret.”  Initially, the secret the king held was in how he obtained and maintained his wisdom.  Ultimately, at the end of the tale, the secret contained within the Golden Apple was the promise for fulfillment of the suitor’s destiny—that of, manifesting his own Kingdom (individuation). 

The Colors in the Fairy Tale

Although all colors can be implied and can easily be projected into this tale, the obvious color is that of gold.  The Golden Apple, the golden ring that was thrown into the sea, and the golden sun of noonday overtly symbolize the soul’s destiny.  Psychologically, this is seen through the process of individuation, and alchemically, through the alchemist’s gold (goal). 

Spirituality in the Fairy Tale 

This tale promotes an aspect of inner work that transcends the negativity of unbalanced polarizations.  This happens in the master/apprentice motif that is supportive, not destructive, to the evolving consciousness of the masculine.  Historically, master/apprentice motifs have illuminated more of a bull/moose, killing off the master by aggressively claiming power. In this tale, power is available to both the king and the servant, in a manner that supports the evolution of both of them, which is an example of the dynamic of co-creation.  Co-creation* is the ultimate goal of individuation, the highest level of spiritual consciousness.  By this, it is meant that the individual is as necessary to the Creator as the Creator is to the individual.  By not resisting the evolution of consciousness, but rather embracing this evolution, the master and the apprentice from our tale support and nurture one another.  The king, in no way, indicated doubt about the servant’s abilities to manifest his own Kingdom (individuation).  The servant, therefore, was never antagonized into a place of rebellion, as he searched to fulfill his destiny.  Faith, hope, trust, and belief are cornerstones of the relationship exposed between the king and the servant—the master and apprentice of our tale.

*Co-creation: the process—within psyche, spirit, and matter—influencing the consciousness of both the individual and the Devine.

© 2019 Lois E. Wilkins, PhD, APRN