If asked to recount the story of Cinderella, most would remember something similar to the Disney version: an orphaned child, with a terrible step family and a generous fairy godmother, who goes to a ball and loses her shoe, with which the prince of the land uses to find her and make her his wife. This story is based off the Charles Perrault version of the fairy tale, written in 1697, however the story of Cinderella dates back all the way to the first century.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of versions of the Cinderella story embedded in every culture of the world. The oldest, perhaps, being the story of Rhodopis. Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, first retells the tale of the Egyptian Cinderella around 64 BCE – 24 CE.
The Story of Rhodopis
Rhodopis was born in Greece, but had been kidnapped and sold into slavery to the Egyptians. A kind, old man bought her, but he spent most of his time sleeping and never noticed the other servants teasing Rhodopis. The servants teased the new slave for her hair was golden and curly, not straight and black like theirs. Their eyes were brown and deep, but hers were green and bright. Their skin was like copper, while Rhodopis’s skin was white like milk. The other servants forced Rhodopis to do all of their work.
Rhodopis only had animals for friends and at the end of the day she would go down to the river to be alone with them where she could dance and sing. One day, the master awoke from a nap he was taking outside and heard Rhodopis singing. He saw her dancing and admired her passion. He insisted that a dancer of her talent should not go without shoes, and so he bought her a special pair of slippers that were soft and rose-red in color. The other servants were smitten with jealousy.
During this time the Pharaoh was holding court in Memphis and everyone was invited. The other servants left Rhodopis behind, giving her a list of chores to finish before they returned. Rhodopis was very disappointed that she could not go and dance at court. But there was nothing she could do, so she went down to the river to do the washing. While washing the other servant’s garments Rhodopis splashed water on her shoes, she took them off and laid them on a rock to dry. Out of nowhere, a falcon swooped down and picked up one of Rhodopis’s slippers and flew away. Knowing that this was the god Horus, Rhodopis did not fret, but knew that her slipper was taken for a reason.
Meanwhile, the Pharaoh, Amasis, was beginning to hold court when a falcon dove down from the sky and dropped a red slipper into the Pharaoh’s lap. The Pharaoh knew immediately that this was a sign from Horus. Amasis cancelled the celebrations and took to his chariot to begin his search for the slipper’s owner. The Pharaoh traveled the Nile in search of the owner, and, by the time he reached the place where Rhodopis lived the other servants had returned and knew their Pharaoh held Rhodopis’s shoe. They all ran to meet the Pharaoh in hopes of trying on the shoe. Rhodopis, unaware of why the Pharaoh was there, hid away in the rushes. The other servants tried on the slipper, but to no avail. The shoe was too small to fit their feet. While the other girls were trying to squeeze the shoe onto their large feet, Amasis spotted Rhodopis in the rushes and asked her to try on the slipper. Rhodopis slid her foot easily into the shoe and pulled out its pair from her tunic. Amasis knew then that she was decreed to be his wife by the Gods. The other servants were outraged and shouted that she was only a slave girl from Greece. Amasis took Rhodopis’s hand and smiled.
“She is the most Egyptian of us all, for her eyes are as green as the Nile, her hair like papyrus, and her skin as pink as the lotus flower.”
Rhodopis was a real person and was recorded in history as a fellow slave of the story teller Aesop during the reign of Amasis. Although the story is considered a fable, the real Rhodopis also happened to be acquainted with the Pharaoh.
The first written version of the Cinderella story was recorded in China during the 9th century.
Once there was a cave chief named Wu who married two wives. Each wife gave birth to a baby girl. The mother of the daughter Yeh-Shen passed away, and soon after so did her husband, leaving Yeh-Shen with her step-mother and sister. Yeh-Shen was quickly neglected by her jealous step-mother and forced to do all of the hardest chores. The only friend Yeh-Shen knew was a fish that she would feed every evening. The step-mother, hearing of the girl’s friendship with the fish grew angry and, putting on Yeh-Shen’s cloak to disguise herself, went down to the river and stabbed the fish to death, then ate it for dinner. Yeh-Shen, hearing of the death of her friend, ran down to the river in tears to see if the news was true. As Yeh-Shen sat crying at the bank, an old man approached her. He told her that the bones of the fish were magical and she should kneel before them when she was in the most need, and tell them her heart’s desires. Yeh-Shen then ran to the garbage pile and took the bones, hiding them in a safe place.
As spring came, the spring festival grew nearer. This was a time when young women would go down to the village to find a suitor. Yeh-Shen longed to go the festival, but her step-mother forbade her, fearing that a suitor would pick Yeh-Shen over her own daughter. Yeh-Shen waited for her step-mother and sister to leave before she ran to the bones and asked them for clothes to wear to the festival. The moment the wish had left her lips, Yeh-Shen was adorned in a beautiful gown of azure blue and on her feet were the most beautiful gold slippers. The bones warned her not to lose the slippers.
Yeh-Shen arrived to the festival and soon all eyes were upon her beauty. Fearful, that her stepmother might see her, Yeh-Shen fled the festival, but in her haste a slipper fell off her foot, returning Yeh-Shen to the rag garments she had worn before. The only thing she had left was the other slipper, which she hid under her straw bed.
A merchant found the lost slipper in the village square, and seeing value in the gold, sold it to another merchant, who, in turn, gave it to the king. The king was fascinated by the beauty of the slipper and longed to know the owner. He placed the slipper in the town square where ladies from all over tried it on.
One dark night, Yeh-Shen slipped quietly away from her cave and into the village where she took the tiny golden slipper, unaware that the king’s men had been hidden away, watching the shoe. Yeh-Shen was arrested and taken to the king, who was struck by her beauty and noticed that she had the tiniest feet. He allowed his men to return her home, where Yeh-Shen produced the other slipper out from under the straw. She put the shoes on and her rags instantly turned into the azure gown. The king then knew that she was the one for him. Yeh-Shen married the king and moved into the palace, leaving her step-mother and sister behind in the cave, where they lived until they died from an avalanche of falling stones.
On the other side of the world, in the Americas, a legend has been passed around through the Algonquian speaking tribes for centuries.
The Hidden One
Once there was a hunter who had two daughters. The younger daughter was beautiful and pure of heart, whereas the older sister was jealous and evil. The older sister would pin the younger one down, while the father was out hunting, and burn the girl’s face and hair with sticks from the fire. The older sister would then lie and tell the father that the younger girl had been playing in the fire. The older sister did this so much, that soon the little sister was known as Little Scarface and was teased by everyone in the village.
In the same village lived a great hunter known as the Hidden One. He was an invisible man who could be seen only by his sister, who was known as the Patient One. The Hidden One said that the woman who was able to see him would be his bride. Many women visited his wigwam, hopeful to become the great hunter’s wife, but none succeeded. One day, the older sister of the two girls decided to try the same and she left for the hunter’s wigwam.
The Patient One welcomed the sister into the hut and asked if the girl could see her brother coming home from the hunt. The sister could not, but decided to lie. But the Patient One knew immediately that the sister spoke untrue and scolded her for lying and sent her home.
The older sister returned home in tears. Little Scarface approached her, asking her sister for skins to make new clothes fit to meet the Hidden One. The older sister was outraged and slapped Little Scarface to the floor. She forbade her sister to go to the Hidden One’s wigwam. Little Scarface sat for a long time, listening to her older sister’s sobs. Then she rose. She took a pair of moccasins from her father’s chest and put them on her own small feet. Then she went to the nearest birch tree and made a suit of clothes. The children in the town teased her as Little Scarface walked to the Hidden One’s home. Little Scarface was met and welcomed by the Patient One who then asked if Little Scarface could see her brother returning from the hunt.
Little Scarface stared. She could see a man, but she could not believe her eyes.
“Yes, I see him,” she told the Patient One. “But, I cannot believe there can be such a one.”
“What is his shoulder strap?” Asked the Patient One.
“Why, it is the Rainbow,” Little Scarface said. The Patient One smiled.
“And, his bowstring?”
“I cannot believe it. It is the Milky Way.”
The Patient One smiled, knowing that Little Scarface could truly see her brother. The Patient One took Little Scarface inside and washed her face with water from a special jar. Her scars disappeared. She then brushed Little Scarface’s hair with a special comb which made her hair fall smoothly down to her waist. Then she opened a chest and took out a beautiful wedding dress and helped Little Scarface put it on. When the Hidden One came inside his sister told him that he was discovered. The Hidden One walked over to Little Scarface and took her hands.
“For years I have waited to find one of pure heart and brave spirit. Only such a one could see me.”
They were married and Little Scarface became known as the Lovely One. For, she too had been hidden, and now was hidden no more.
The Little Glass Slipper and The Brothers Grimm
In 1697 Charles Perrault published the version of Cinderella that most people are familiar with today. While there had been other versions of Cinderella throughout Europe before this, Perrault’s story was the first to include a fairy godmother. Perrault also invented the pumpkin carriage, the mice which turned into servants, and the glass slippers. Perrault called his story The Little Glass Slipper and based it off a story he had heard from a group of storytellers. It is because of this that some people think that Perrault confused the French word “vair” (meaning fur) with “verre” (meaning glass) which explains why the slipper is glass, a very unusual style. Perrault’s story also has a happier ending than most fairy tales. After Cinderella marries the prince she forgives the sisters for the way they behaved and invites them to live in the castle with her, where she finds them husbands in the court.
In the 19th century the famous Brother’s Grimm printed their own, notoriously gruesome, version of the story, called Aschenputtel, or Ash Girl. In this story the father is still alive, but neglectful of his daughter and allows her step-mother and sisters to torment her. When, in the end, the prince comes to the home of Cinderella with the slipper, Cinderella is hidden away and only the step sisters try on the shoe, each of them cutting a piece off their foot so they can slip it on. Each time the prince rides away with one of the sisters, thinking he has found his bride, birds call after him to notice the blood at the heels of the girls. When the prince takes the second sister back to the house he asks if there are any other ladies of the house. When the shoe fits Cinderella he rides away with her. The story ends with the birds plucking out the sisters’ eyes for being deceitful.
Though all Cinderella stories appear around the world at different times, they all display the same theme. Each story starts with a lower class girl who was pure of heart and full of beauty, but treated wickedly, and ends with this same girl being recognized for her beauty and married into the highest class of her land. The stories of Cinderella aim to teach children optimism, honesty, hard work, and to be overall good people. Even in her worn down state, each Cinderella character never complained, but continued to work hard and to be good in spirit, and in the end she received the greatest reward of all. Just as most fairytales do, Cinderella displays the battle of good and evil, and shows that in the end good will always prevail.
© 2014 Sckylar Gibby-Brown
Ashi on March 10, 2017:
I haven't read Cinderella Story in my life. For the first time, I read and truly enjoyed this tale :)
Brilliant work dear :)