The versions we currently know of the Cinderella story glean their pieces from a piece dating back to the first century, which transformed a tale about a Greek slave girl becoming an Egyptian queen into a supernatural and magical romance.
The first variant of Cinderella is “Rhodopis,” which originated in Egypt and is believed to loosely based on a real person. Herodotus wrote a story about a young, Greek girl being kidnaped by pirates and sold to a kind Egyptian master. Unfortunately, her fellow slaves are less kind, so she finds solace in her animal friends. Then, she discovers fancy shoes in the Pharaoh’s court. Cue the romance, of course, as she marries the Pharaoh by the gods’ decree. This early tale appeared in various forms across eighteen centuries.
Another close version appeared in the sixth century, depicting a Greek wealthy prostitute named Rhodopis plots to have an eagle steal one of the slave girl’s shoes, fly it across the Mediterranean, and drop it into the lap of an Egyptian king. The shoe was a sign from the heavens, and the king quests to find its owner, marry her, and make her a queen.
In a ninth-century Chinese portrayal, Ye Xian is granted a single wish from some magical fishbones: to create a gown in hopes of finding a husband. A monarch finds the shoe—a gold fish-scale design—and quests for the woman with tiny enough feet to fit it. Ye Xian’s beauty prompts the king to marry her, and the terrible step-mother dies in her cave home, crushed by stones.
The medieval Phillipines created “Anne de Fernandez,” where the title character befriends Gold-Eyes, a talking-fish reincarnation of her mother. Anne’s evil step-family tricks Gold-Eyes, kills her, and prepares her for supper after sending Anne on an errand across the forest. She’s shown the bones when she returns. Her only way out of this hellhole is when the Prince of Talamban falls in love with her instead of one of her step-sisters. An intriguingly small, golden slipper, leads the prince back to Anne in spite of her family’s plotting.
In Japan, Chūjō-hime, escapes her evil step-mother with the help of Buddhist nuns. She joins their convent in the end. And in Korea, the mistreated Kongji goes to the mayor’s feast, meets his son, and the love story ensues.
Most of the newer bits stem from more recent tales, like the seventeenth-century’s “Cendrillon” or “The Little Glass Slipper” by Charles Perrault, which depicted a young girl forced into servitude to her stepfamily and is eventually rescued by a prince with the help of a lost glass slipper, a godmother, and magic, of course. His account introduced the pumpkin and the cinder element, since the maiden slept beside the fire every night and woke covered in ash. But in Perrault’s world, the stepsisters apologize for being terrible and go on to marry lords.
Most of the countless depictions follow this theme. Although one version has Cinderella murder her stepmother. I want to read this one. And another shows Cinderella force-fed her own toe. Ick. Needless to say, this character and her story isn’t so easily defined, yet she permeates our culture so deeply. She intertwines together centuries of storytelling and many cultures.
Another modern version comes from an Italian collection of short stories. “La Gatta Cenerentola,” or “The Cat Cinderella,” also possessed the ingredients of the modern tale, the step-family, the magic, the missing slipper, but it brings more darkness. A woman named Zezolla flees from a king who wants to marry her, narrowly escaping him at two different celebrations, but he catches her at the third and thwarts her ability to abscond. Instead of uplifting love, Zezolla’s story ends in a forced marriage. Oh, and she has six evil step-sisters instead of two.
A second Italian variant of the tale—or a second-cousin to the story—headlines with a woman giving birth to a talking gourd. A prince stumbles upon it and takes it with him. Eventually, a girl emerges from the gourd and is kept as a slave by the prince, who mistreats her terribly. Beaten to keep her from his ball, she makes it there anyways in disguise. They meet, and he gives her gifts throughout the night, and in the morning, she serves him breakfast as her squashy self, but has slipped her gifts into his food, and he realizes she is his beloved. They get married. Um, what?
Well, without surprise, the Brothers Grimm got their hands on the tale, too, creating a much darker story in the nineteenth-century. “Aschenputtel,” or “Ash Fool,” provides a tree growing from her mother’s grave instead of a fairy godmother to grant Cinderella’s wishes. Instead of a dead father, he’s obstinately ignorant of his daughter’s misery. Grimm gives the girl golden shoes and has her step-sisters cut off their own toes to get the shoe to fit. However, Cinderella still marries the prince, and her step-sisters are bridesmaids, but doves peck their eyes out during the ceremony. Yes! That’s one to read to the kiddos. I mean, if your kiddo was like me as a child…
In Russia, “Baba Yaga and Vasilisa” was written in the mid-nineteenth century and is similarly more adult. The girl, Vasilisa, is sent to a witch by her step-mother, who assumes that the girl will die. But she survives the hut made of human bones, her brush with death reunites her with her dad via a helpful magic doll. Unfortunately, Baba Yaga punishes the cat whose only job was to kill Vasilisa by scratching out her eyes.
Native Algonquin legends in the late nineteenth century provided us with “The Hidden One,” a variance that emphasizes morals rather than revenge. A young warrior named Strong Wind could make himself invisible, which he uses to test the truthfulness of the women who’d like to marry him. Then, he meets three sisters; two claim to see him when they can’t, but the youngest and most abused, tells the truth and, therefore, ends up with Strong Wind.
Disney’s version of Cinderella piggybacked on the more kid-friendly elements, like the talking animals and songs popular in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. It also worked as an excellent marketing tool, showing the merits of consumerism—the nice ride, the fancy dress and shoes, and how a grand entrance really does make a great first impression. Oh, and did you know that sparkly dress was based on designs by Dior, a French luxury fashion designer?
Most recently in 1994, West Africa offers Chinye, a reprieve from the marriage mandate. The young girl is sent by her step-mother to fetch water in a dark, scary forest. Chinye is patient and good hearted, which leads her to a treasure in the woods. This provides her with the financial freedom of her greedy step-family, and she goes on to live a great life, helping others with her riches.
The Cinderella story most often tells us that we can overcome hardship. That we have the power to change our lives. And if you’re a hopeful romantic, that love will find a way to save us.
I had the honor of reading through and publishing so many new takes on the fairy tale in AFTER THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. But since Cinderella marries a Charming prince, and so does Snow White, I couldn’t resist smashing the two princesses together in the same kingdom as undercover agents. Yes, you heard me right. Think fairy princess and 007, abusive husbands, crafty DWARVES, and conspiracy theories.
Hardships are abound, but can these two overcome them all? Who’s to say? Well, I could, but I won’t.
What’s your favorite version of the Cinderella tale? Let me know in the comments below!