Cinderella Part 1 – History: Journey of a Janitor
(Note: this is part of the series “City of Refuge Saturdays.” Yes, technically it’s Sunday, but they both begin with “s” and are right next to each other, so I thank you for your grace. Stay tuned–there’s plenty more to come!)
A happily-ever-after, all because a careless party girl couldn’t hang onto her footwear.
Charting the origin of Cinderella is a little like sorting through a giant pile of shoes for a pair that matches. Depending on who does the sorting, different pairs might come up first.
While the story was first officially published by Charles Perrault in 1697, elements of the story have existed long before that. The fact that so many cultures have their own versions speaks to some of the universal themes contained in the story. Themes like a poor martyr, being lifted from obscurity to royalty. The rescuing of a damsel in distress by a magical helper. The sense of whimsical chance, of a happy ending taking place because of a missing shoe. The idea that, if someone is faithful and good enough, they will eventually triumph over the evil of their circumstances.
Here’s a taste of some notable versions:
According to one source (here), the tale of Cinderella goes back to 1 BC (or earlier) and shows up in the works of Herodotus and Strabo. The girl was called Rhodopis (rosy-cheeked), a Greek slave in Egypt. As the story goes, an eagle stole her sandal while she was bathing, and dropped it in the lap of the king. The king was so intrigued by the sandal and the weird happenstance that he had the kingdom searched until Rhodopis was found and made his wife. In addition to being one of the earliest versions of Cinderella, this could also be one of the earliest instances of animal match-making.
Asia boasts several different versions of the fairy tale. In China, the name is Ye Xian, recorded by Tuan Ch’eng-shih around 860. Ye Xian is given magical aid by a fish (her reincarnated mother), and goes on to attend the New Year Festival, lose her footwear, marry the king, etc.
In the Philippines, the story is “Mariang Alimango” (Mary the Crab). Badly-treated Maria wins the heart of the prince during his coming-of-age celebration, and overcomes the cruelty of her stepmother and evil stepsisters. In this version, the spirit of her dead mother reincarnates as a crab, hence the title, and serves as her “fairy godmother” (sourced here).
In the Vietnamese version Tam Cam, the story gets a bit messy. Like the Chinese version, Tam is helped by the bones of a magical fish, discards her shoe, and eventually becomes the king’s bride during a festival. Then things turn grisly. Tam boils her stepsister alive and then tricks her stepmother by feeding her her own daughter’s flesh.
One Italian version is Cerentola.
In this case, her father–a prince–is alive the whole time, though presumably not very good at protecting his daughter from her six bullying stepsisters. Fairies play their usual helpful role, and Cerentola catches the eye of a king. In this case, the king has a grand shoe-test feast. At that feast, the slipper goes airborne, flying straight to the foot of Cerentola.
One last version to check out is the Grimm classic, Aschenputtel, or Ash Girl. In this case, birds and a beloved tree planted near her mother’s grave help help Cinderella get her finery, and in the end, her prince. The love-sick fool gets tricked, not once but twice, by her scheming stepsisters who both mutilate their feet to try and fit them into the tiny shoe. Only the words of a helpful dove (or in some versions, crow) clue the guy in.
There are many other interesting facts and wonderful versions of Cinderella. Check out some of these links:
Sur La Lune – gateway to a lot of other Cinderella websites and resources
Cinderella - this place has many of the versions for your reading convenience
Cinderella’s Historical Character – an interesting critique of Perrault’s and Grimm’s versions