The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

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The Green Snake
and the Beautiful Lily
Opheodrys aestivusPCCP20030524-0823B.jpg
Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Original titleDas Märchen
Translator Thomas Carlyle
Publication date

The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (German title: Märchen or Das Märchen) is a fairy tale by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published in 1795 in Friedrich Schiller's German magazine Die Horen (The Horae). It concludes Goethe's novella rondo Conversations of German Emigrants (1795). Das Märchen is regarded as the founding example of the genre of Kunstmärchen, or artistic fairy tale. [1] The story revolves around the crossing and bridging of a river, which represents the divide between the outer life of the senses and the ideal aspirations of the human being.

Fairy tale fictional story featuring folkloric fantasy characters

A fairy tale, wonder tale, magic tale, or Märchen is a folklore genre that takes the form of a short story. Such stories typically feature entities such as dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, griffins, mermaids, talking animals, trolls, unicorns, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments. In most cultures, there is no clear line separating myth from folk or fairy tale; all these together form the literature of preliterate societies. Fairy tales may be distinguished from other folk narratives such as legends and explicit moral tales, including beast fables. The term is mainly used for stories with origins in European tradition and, at least in recent centuries, mostly relates to children's literature.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 18th/19th-century German writer, artist, and politician

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and statesman. His works include four novels; epic and lyric poetry; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; and treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him have survived.

This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1795.



The tale begins with two will-o'-the-wisps who wake a ferryman and ask to be taken across a river. The ferryman does so, and for payment, they shake gold from themselves into the boat. This alarms the ferryman, for if the gold had gone into the river, it would overflow. He demands as payment: three artichokes, three cabbages, and three onions, and the will-o'-the-wisps may depart only after promising to bring him such. The ferryman takes the gold up to a high place, and deposits it into a rocky cleft, where it is discovered by a green snake who eats the gold, and finds itself luminous. This gives the snake opportunity to study an underground temple where we meet an old man with a lamp which can only give light when another light is present. The snake now investigates the temple, and finds four kings: one gold, one silver, one bronze, and one a mixture of all three.

Will-o-the-wisp atmospheric ghost lights

In folklore, a will-o'-the-wisp, will-o'-wisp or ignis fatuus is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. The phenomenon is known in English folk belief, English folklore and much of European folklore by a variety of names, including jack-o'-lantern, friar's lantern, hinkypunk and hobby lantern, and is said to mislead travelers by resembling a flickering lamp or lantern. In literature, will-o'-the-wisp sometimes have a metaphorical meaning, e.g. describing a hope or goal that leads one on but is impossible to reach, or something one finds sinister and confounding.

The story then switches over to the wife of the old man, who meets a melancholy prince. He has met a beautiful Lily, but is distressed by the fact that anyone who touches her will die. The snake is able to form a temporary bridge across the river at midday, and in this way, the wife and prince come to the beautiful Lily's garden, where she is mourning her fate. As twilight falls, the prince succumbs to his desire for the Beautiful Lily, rushes towards her, and dies. The green snake encircles the prince, and the old man, his wife, and the will-o'-the-wisps form a procession and cross the river on the back of the snake.

Back in the land of the senses, and guided by the old man, the Lily is able to bring the prince back to life — albeit in a dream state — by touching both the snake and the prince. The snake then sacrifices itself, and changes into a pile of precious stones which are thrown into the river. The old man then directs them towards the doors of the temple which are locked. The will-o'-the-wisps help them enter by eating the gold out of the doors. At this point, the temple is magically transported beneath the river, surfacing beneath the ferryman's hut — which turns into a silver altar. The three kings bestow gifts upon the sleeping prince and restore him. The fourth, mixed king collapses as the will-o'-the-wisps lick the veins of gold out of him. We also find that Lily's touch no longer brings death. Thus, the prince is united with the beautiful Lily, and they are married. When they look out from the temple, they see a permanent bridge which spans the river — the result of the snake's sacrifice — "and to the present hour the Bridge is swarming with travellers, and the Temple is the most frequented on the whole Earth".


It has been claimed that Das Märchen was born out of Goethe's reading of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and that it is full of esoteric symbolism. In 1786, Goethe observed that The Chymical Wedding contains “a pretty fairy story” for which he had no time at the moment. [2]

The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is a German book edited in 1616 in Strasbourg. Its anonymous authorship is attributed to Johann Valentin Andreae. The Chymical Wedding is often described as the third of the original manifestos of the mysterious "Fraternity of the Rose Cross" (Rosicrucians), although it is markedly different from the Fama Fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis in style and in subject matter.

Rudolf Steiner, in his 1918 book Goethe's Standard of the Soul, speaks of it as follows: “On the river stands the Temple in which the marriage of the Young Man with the Lily takes place. The ‘marriage’ with the supersensible, the realisation of the free personality, is possible in a human soul whose forces have been brought into a state of regularity that in comparison with the usual state is a transformation.” [3] This article led to an invitation to speak to the German Theosophical Society which eventually led to Steiner becoming its General Secretary.

Rudolf Steiner Austrian esotericist

Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, social reformer, architect, economist and esotericist. Steiner gained initial recognition at the end of the nineteenth century as a literary critic and published philosophical works including The Philosophy of Freedom. At the beginning of the twentieth century he founded an esoteric spiritual movement, anthroposophy, with roots in German idealist philosophy and theosophy; other influences include Goethean science and Rosicrucianism.

Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society

The relationship between Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society, co-founded in 1875 by H.P. Blavatsky with Henry Steel Olcott and others, was a complex and changing one.

Theosophical Society organization that advances theosophy

The Theosophical Society was an organization formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky to advance Theosophy. The original organization, after splits and realignments, currently has several successors. Following the death of Blavatsky, competition within the Society between factions emerged, particularly among founding members and the organisation split between the Theosophical Society Adyar (Olcott-Besant) and the Theosophical Society Pasadena (Judge). The former group, headquartered in India, is the most widespread international group holding the name "Theosophical Society" today.

Tom Raines gives the following historical background for “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily”:

This Fairy Tale was written by Goethe as a response to a work of Schiller’s entitled Über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man). One of the main thoughts considered in these ‘letters’ centred around the question of human freedom... Schiller saw that a harmonious social life could only be founded on the basis of free human personalities. He saw that there was an "ideal human being" within everyone and the challenge was to bring the outer life experiences into harmony with this "ideal". Then the human being would lead a truly worthy existence.

Schiller was trying to build an inner bridge between the Person in the immediate reality and the 'ideal human being'. He wrote these ‘Letters’ during the time and context of the French Revolution. This revolution was driven by a desire for outer social changes to enable human personalities to become free. But both Schiller and Goethe recognised that freedom cannot be ‘imposed’ from the outside but must arise from within each person. Whilst he had an artistic nature, Schiller was more at home in the realm of philosophic thoughts and although Goethe found much pleasure in these ‘Letters’ of Schiller, he felt that the approach concerning the forces in the soul was too simply stated and, it should be said, working in abstract ideas was not Goethe's way. So he set about writing a Fairy Tale that would show, in imaginative pictures, the way in which a human soul could become whole and free, thereby giving rise to a new and free human community. And this was published in Die Horen in 1795. [4]

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.


The tale was the basis for Giselher Klebe's 1969 opera Das Märchen von der schönen Lilie .

Giselher Klebe German composer

Giselher Wolfgang Klebe was a German composer, and an academic teacher. He composed more than 140 works, among them 14 literary operas, eight symphonies, 15 solo concerts, chamber music, piano works, and sacred music.

Opera artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

<i>Das Märchen von der schönen Lilie</i> opera

Das Märchen von der schönen Lilie, Op. 55, is an opera in two acts by Giselher Klebe on a libretto by Lore Klebe based Goethe's fairy tale Das Märchen. On a commission by the SWR for the Schwetzingen Festival, it was premiered on 15 May 1969 at the Schlosstheater Schwetzingen, staged by Oskar Fritz Schuh and conducted by Hans Zender. The opera was published by Bärenreiter.


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  1. The Literature of German Romanticism (ed. Dennis F. Mahoney). Boydell & Brewer, 2004. ISBN   9781571132369. Page 102.
  2. W. H. Bruford. Culture and Society in Classical Weimar 1775-1806. Cambridge University Press, 1975. Page 186.
  3. Steiner, Rudolf (1925). "III. As illustrated in his fairy story of 'The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily'". Goethe's Standard of the Soul. Translated by D. S. Osmond.
  4. "Goethe's 'Fairy Tale'" Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine in New View magazine, 2003