Fairytale Origins: Cinderella

The tale of Cinderella is probably one of the most beloved fairy tales to date. The origin of the story has been traced all the way back to ancient Greece. The fairytale has evolved over centuries, with different cultures across the world putting their own spin on it. In fact, the well loved version that we know, with the pumpkin and glass slippers, did not actually appear until around 300 years ago. Here are just some of the most famous versions.

The earliest recorded version of the Cinderella story originates in ancient Greece. The story tells of a Greek courtesan living in Egypt. One day while bathing, an eagle snatches up her sandal and carries it off to Memphis where it drops it in the king’s lap. The king was so taken by the shape of the sandal (as you do) and the divine circumstance in which he came to obtain it (birds were seen as a divine portent in ancient Greece). The king sends his men on a quest to find the maiden who wore the sandal, and when they finally do, he marries her.

Then there came a Maltese folk tale that combined some elements of the classic Cinderella story. Her name is Ċiklemfusa, and she is an orphan working as a servant in the King’s palace. One day the king announces three grand balls will take place. With the help of a magical spell, Ċiklemfusa turns herself into a beautiful princess. On the first night, the prince falls in love with her and gives her a ring. The second night the Prince gives her a diamond and on the third night he gives her a ring with a large gem on it. At the end of the ball, the princess disappears, and the prince laments his lost love. Ċiklemfusa, moved by the Prince’s true attachment to her, makes some krustini (typical Maltese biscuits) for him and hides the three gifts in each of them. When the Prince eats the biscuits and finds the gifts, he realizes Ċiklemfusa is the princess, and the huge mistake he made ignoring her. Ċiklemfusa becomes his wife and they live happily ever after. 

There are also several versions of Cinderella that originate from outside of Europe as well.

In a version of the story that originates from China, Ye Xian is an orphan in the care of her abusive stepmother. She befriends a fish, who is in fact the reincarnation of her deceased mother. When the stepmother and half-sister kill the fish, Ye Xian finds the bones and they come to life. They help her dress for a local Festival and give her golden shoes. When her stepfamily recognizes her at the festival, she flees and loses a shoe. A king of a sea island finds the shoe and becomes obsessed with the owner after no one has feet that can fit the shoe. The King searches everywhere and finally reaches Ye’s house, where she tries on the shoe. The King leaves with Ye and her stepmother and half-sister are killed by flying rocks. There is also a similar Vietnamese story called The Story of Tam and Cam.

Several variants of the story also appear in the One Thousand and One Nights/ Arabian Nights. They all show a younger sibling abused by jealous siblings – some female, some male. In most they have happy endings, though not in all of them.

The Cinderella story we all know and love though didn’t appear in literature until the 1600s. An Italian soldier compiled well-loved folktales into a written collection: Pentamerone. In it was the tale of Cenerentola. In this story, Cinderella is called Zezolla. There is a wicked stepmother (Zezolla’s governess, who she helps marry her father). The Governess then brings her six daughters to the palace, and they abuse Zezolla and make her work in the kitchen. There is then a ball by the king, and Zezolla uses the help of a magical tree to go to the ball. The king falls in love with her, but she runs away. A servant takes her slipper, and the king invites all the maidens to a ball to test the slipper on them. Zezolla is named as the lucky maiden when the slipper jumps from his hand onto her feet.

However, one of the most popular versions of Cinderella was written by Charles Perrault in 1697: Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre. It was this story that finally introduced all the additions that we know and love: the pumpkin, the fairy-godmother and the “glass” slippers though some have asserted that the slippers could have been ‘fur’ and could have been mistranslated through the centuries. This has never been proven, though.

The Brother’s Grimm also wrote their own version in the 19th century called “Aschenputtel” (“Cinderella” in English translations). This version is a retelling of Perrault’s story, but with much more violence, namely when the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit the slipper on their feet. 

Even beyond these tales there are a multitude of variations on the tale. In many there is no fairy godmother, and the magical help is a cow, a tree or doves. Others do away with the evil stepmother and just have the abusive siblings, or an evil stepfather. The number of balls also varies, from one to three, and the midnight curfew is not present in many stories. The glass slipper was also only Perrault’s version and the stories that come after. In the rest it is just a normal shoe or even a ring or bracelets.

In truth, I could probably be here all day recounting all the different versions of Cinderella. It is such a loved tale that authors, poets and scriptwriters all over the world have sought to retell it in their own ways. 

My favourite retelling, Ella Enchanted, is March’s book of the month. Read my review here.   

What is your favourite Cinderella retelling?

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