Unfortunately, myth has come to mean something that it doesn’t. Usually, when we say that something is a myth, we mean that it is untrue. But a myth is actually a story whose characters are the inner aspects of one person—ourselves—and the plot describes how we transform from a state of sleep and unconscious suffering into a fuller realization of who we really are. Snow White and the Huntsman is this kind of mythic tale.
You already know the story, so I don’t think a spoiler alert is necessary, but I would like to give you some overlays, things to watch for as the story unfolds. And I really do hope you see it. It is a beautiful movie!
The first key to understanding this myth is knowing that Snow White and Queen Ravenna are two aspects of one person—you. As we come into this life, fresh from the Other Side, the outer garment of our soul has been cleansed of past errors. We are born riding on a wave of innocence and grace. Once again we are in a cycle of infancy, a fresh start, but the deeper, more universal hurdles on the path to personhood are there to meet us, and we must face them.
The evil queen, Ravenna, is terrified of death and obsessed with immortality. Aren’t we all. Our spiritual growth is held in check by our fear of dying. Until we conquer that fear, we cannot progress on the spiritual path. Ravenna is the personification of that fear. She keeps us imprisoned in her castle, a fortress against the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The fear of death sucks the life out every living thing around us, as we insist on seeing ourselves as forever young in the golden mirror of our vanity.
The path of initiation always comes with trials. We must face our fears and conquer them—see them for what they really are. Death is perhaps the greatest fear. In ancient Egypt, initiates were placed in a tomb for three days, believing they were going to die. At the end of three days, they were “resurrected” into a new life. They were no longer afraid of dying, or maybe they were just glad to get out of that damn box! Either way, it was a ritual of rebirth. In the Buddhist tradition, there is a similar ritual called “the Graveyard Vision,” where a lone monk has to spend the night in a graveyard where he grapples with and finally overcomes his fear of dying. His teacher probably enhanced the experience with a bit of spooky astral projection just to override any false bravado in the monk. Teachers can be sneaky that way. Today, initiates sometimes spend three days in seclusion before going through a ritual of initiation, symbolically reenacting entombment in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid.
There are other elements to Snow White and the Huntsman. The poison apple is the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, the dual vision of reality that plunges us deep into the sleep of materiality. Its illusion is that of love withheld, as in an early scene where Snow White’s cousin pretends to offer her an apple but then snatches it away as she reaches for it. This symbolizes the seeming cruelty of life, the way death snatches away those we love, just as it did Snow White’s mother, leaving her vulnerable and alone, without an external role model and a father figure disempowered by grief and despair.
The Seven Dwarves are the seven virtues yet in their undeveloped state, kept small by our preoccupation with the sensory world. When one dwarf dies to save Snow White’s life, this is symbolic of sacrificial love, that love of which there is no greater. It is in this scene that the Huntsman first realizes that he is in love with Snow White. The stunted, unrealized integration of anima and animus is replaced by the full-blown fulfillment of soul-integration. The Huntsman’s own integration with his feeling nature has been cut short by the death of his wife, symbolizing our profound disenchantment with the transience of physical life, where our response is to shut down, just as he did, turning our love into anger and self-destructive behavior. This all takes place within one person—us—regardless of whether an external romance is found. Such is the quality of myth.
The troll under the bridge is our anger. This test is won by love when we are able to embrace the hurt part of ourselves with kindness and compassion. But first we must demonstrate that we do not fear it, as when Snow White commands the troll to stop, before it can obliterate her inner masculine. The troll is the masculine aspect after it has been consumed by anger, made into a monster that prevents travelers from passing over the bridge from the swamps of the dark forest of ignorance to the world of light and self-awareness.
After Snow White’s integration with her own inner masculine (symbolized by the Huntsman’s kiss) and her resurrection, she must do battle with the dark queen of her own fears. When we come into awareness of our spiritual nature, we still have to undo the mess created by years of false thinking. Initiations are beginnings—it is we who have to do the work of completing the transformation. Nothing is simply given—power must be seized. Snow White rallies all of her inner powers, symbolized by her knights, and rides out to do battle with the false queen, to slay her own illusions and reclaim the crown of enlightened, integrated personhood.
There are other mythical images in the movie, as when Ravenna climbs up out of a pit of black ooze, which symbolizes the dark, unseen forces of nature that bind the physical world together. These are the same entropic forces that pull the upward arc of physical life back into its source, the way the shooting water of a fountain loses momentum and falls back into its pool. It is this force that Ravenna seeks to escape by bathing in the milk of life, which she steals from “her people”—the various parts of her soul that long for full development but are starved of the necessary life-giving energies by her pride and egotism.
Another mythical symbol in Snow White and the Huntsman is the heart (perhaps the central theme of the story), with its three aspects—courage, love, and life. Snow White demonstrates her courage when she escapes from the castle, her love when she subdues the troll, and her life when she refuses death under the domination of the false queen. Is it any wonder that the heart is at the center of all mystical traditions? It is passion, not lust—love, not fear—and knowledge, not ignorance that brings us into wholeness. It is the beauty of a fully integrated soul that defines Snow White, not the superficial glamor of vanity and worldly power. The battle is an inner one, the task herculean. But the reward is true happiness, the aliveness of the present moment, and the fulfillment of our soul’s purpose.
Snow White 2—the male in chains
Let’s look at the symbolism of the male characters in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Snow White’s father, King Magnus, symbolizes the fully developed rational mind tempered by love (his wife, Queen Eleanor) and invigorated by the goodness and purity of life, Snow White. His heart and vitality, however, are still separate from him. So, even though he is master of his kingdom (the physical world) he is spiritually undeveloped—he has yet to integrate these aspects of himself into his personality. This is why he becomes easy prey to Ravenna, who symbolizes vanity and the fear of death, because he has lost his connection to his heart and is thus prone to self-deception.
King Magnus also shows us what happens when our rational mind first encounters its dark side—the shadow army lurking just outside the borders of his kingdom. He only appears to conquer the threat, which is the way we feel when—by suppressing our dark thoughts and desires—they seem to go away. But Ravenna beguiles him with her physical beauty, and his loneliness and feelings of powerlessness in the face of an impermanent world makes lust seem like the only “reasonable” alternative to true love. And we all know what happens next—the unnamed, dark adversaries within manifest themselves in our outer circumstances, and a real army rides through our gates and destroys our world.
In the language of myth and symbol, male figures represent the conscious mind, while female figures represent the subconscious mind. Older characters, like King Magnus and Queen Eleanor, represent these aspects of ourselves that are well-established in our personality. Younger characters, like Snow White and her cousin William, represent the undeveloped spiritual side of us—the next generation. They are the part that has yet to fully emerge and that must go through tests and trials before it can become fully conscious and integrated. In Christian mythology, the baby Jesus has to be hidden and protected from the ruthless skepticism of the full-blown rationality and powerlust of King Herod. This shows how the tender blossomings of spiritual awareness are vulnerable to our sense-based logic and our tenacious ego that will not cede its control over our life energies.
Remember that the hypothesis here is that all the characters in this story are aspects of one person—us. The male characters represent different stages of development and different aspects of our conscious mind. The female characters represent the same things about our subconscious mind. The “good” characters are those aspects that are life-affirming; the “bad” characters are our own self-destructive tendencies personified as forces of evil. Ravenna is our heart gone insane because it cannot rely on the rational mind to protect it from the world. Finn, her brother, fails to deliver Snow White’s heart (immortality), showing that the conscious mind, when enslaved by vanity and the fear of mortality, cannot provide a link to eternal life. Cousin William also fails to protect Snow White when she is abducted in the beginning of the story, but whereas Finn is the corrupted mind, William is simply undeveloped, which Snow White points out when she assuages his guilt by saying, “We were children.”
King Magnus’ brother (and father to William), Duke Hammond, is the protective aspect of mind in its fully developed state. But though he is able to hold things together despite the oppressive rule of Queen Ravenna, that’s all he can do. It takes William, who is willing to risk everything in order to save Snow White, to justify all that protecting. William is the younger character and therefore the spiritual aspect of mind still in the process of finding its place in the world. William is more spiritually developed than his father, because his heart is more fully integrated in the form of courage.
Ravenna’s brother, Finn, personifies what happens to the male aspect when it is totally disconnected from life. Both he and his sister have blonde hair in contrast to Snow White’s “raven black” hair. Black hair symbolizes vitality. The absence or opposite of it, in this case, symbolizes the semblance of life, which is how we appear when we are driven by self-preservation. We lose our life (vitality) when we are obsessed with keeping it. As Finn illustrates, the mind, when obsessed in this way, becomes outwardly obsequious to power, but cruel in the extreme when in service to vanity—the love aspect turned inward on itself.
At last we come to the Huntsman. He is the will, the protector and provider of our heart aspect when allied with it, but unruly and self-destructive when disconnected from his feelings. All of the characters in this story illustrate what happens when our sensitive and innocent inner nature collides with the harsh, seemingly cruel realities of physical existence. Life, which knows nothing of death, reacts when it sees it. It caused Siddhartha to abandon the world to search for enlightenment. But the Huntsman takes out his disillusionment on himself. Drunk, brawling, wallowing in the mud of negativity, his life is without direction until Ravenna orders him to find Snow White.
We can say here that there is only one will—the will of God. It is the voltage that potentializes every living thing—”the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Once he realizes that Snow White is life itself, nothing can stop him from returning her to her rightful place in the kingdom. When she is lost in the depths of the Dark Forest (the unconscious) it is he who leads her out into self-awareness. When she succumbs to the wiles of her false self (Ravenna), it is the will that jumpstarts her heart with a kiss. When we are overcome by the rigors of spiritual awakening, it is our will power that saves us. When nothing feels right and all of our rationale fails to justify the trials and tribulations inherent to the spiritual path, it is our sheer determination that sees us through. We do it because we said we would do it. We certainly don’t do it because it feels good, because it doesn’t. And we certainly don’t do it because it makes sense in the world. When the chips are down, we keep going because we gave our word.
When our will is wedded in service to our heart, that high spiritual aspect of courage blooms forth in our soul. It is the sacred marriage where our feminine is balanced with our masculine. And oh, the beauty! Or as the Huntsman tells Snow White, when he first sees her dressed in armor and ready to conquer the false queen, “You look fetching in mail (male).”