Linguists recently posited that some fairy tales, such as Rumpelstiltskin and Beauty and the Beast could potentially be thousands of years old, a notion I found fascinating.
Around the same time, reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, I “discovered” that Cinderella wasn’t actually a western/European creation at all; it came from an ancient Egyptian story, and a 9th century fairy tale that originated in China, and this fascinated me, too.
Not because I assumed that other cultures didn’t have their own fairy tales, but because I didn’t realise there were such direct links between these tales and the common Cinderella fairy tale we so readily know and commonly associate with Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.
Origins of Cinderella
The origins of Cinderella — or The Little Glass Slipper as Perrault called it — can be glimpsed in the ancient, Egyptian story of Rhodopis, first written down by Strabo in c. 1 BC.
And, as mentioned above, in the Chinese fairy tale of Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien, which was published, scholars believe, around 850-60 AD.
So, just how similar is Cinderella to these old fairy stories?
Below, I take a look at both of these ancient narratives and in Part 2, go on to discuss how the Cinderella story evolved under Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, who adapted it for western audiences.
In Rhodopis, a young, pure Greek girl (who was thought to have been a real life slave some 500 years before, as accounted by Herodotus) works in the town of Naucratis, in ancient Egypt. She goes for a dip in the Nile and leaves her clothes and gilded sandals on the bank.
While she’s swimming, one of the sandals is stolen by a bird, which in most tales I’ve found, is an eagle or a falcon.
The bird drops the shoe into the lap of the Pharaoh or King, who takes this as a sign from the Gods and is instantly captivated by the girl whose foot could fit into such a tiny slipper.
He sets out to find her, but doesn’t have much luck until a scribe tells him to go to the Sphinx at dawn, where a beautiful maiden can be seen every morning. He does so, and realises that Rhodopis is the one he’s been looking for.
He approaches her and shows her the slipper. She puts it on and also reveals she has the other, matching slipper. The King is delighted and asks her to be his Queen. She agrees, and goes on to rule over Egypt by his side.
In this tale, it’s obvious that many elements have trickled down into today’s telling of Cinderella, namely the breaking down of class borders. Like Cinderella, Rhodopis is a lowly, persecuted girl — in many versions, the tale incorporates the detail that she is a courtesan (slave/prostitute) and others show her being teased by other girls because of her appearance.
While the narrative of the lost slipper remains, the key difference in Rhodopis is the absence of the ‘festival’ or ‘ball.’ The ending, however, is a similarly happy one: the King finds Rhodopis and they marry and live happily ever after.
Yeh Shen or Ye Xian/Yeh Hsien
In the Chinese story of Yeh Shen, we see much more similarities that lead us to the modern version of Cinderella. Unlike Rhodopis, Yeh Shen shifts the story away from the world of slavery and prostitution and into a family setting. There’s also a little more magic in the Yeh Shen version, and we’re introduced to the archetype of the mentor/godmother here, reflected in the spirit.
Yeh Shen is a young Chinese girl with a wicked stepmother and a horrid stepsister. She is forced to carry out lowly chores around the home.
In her despair, she befriends a fish in the local lake. But upon discovering this friendship, the stepmother grows angry. She captures the fish, cooks it and serves it for dinner. However, a male spirit (presumably of one of her ancestors) appears and tells Yeh Shen to bury the bones of the fish and that if she asks, it will be able to grant her wishes.
When the New Year festival arrives, the stepmother and stepsister prohibit Yeh Shen from attending; she is to stay home and clean the house. But, desperate to attend the festival, she makes a wish to the fish bones and suddenly finds herself in a beautiful gown and the infamous golden slippers.
Yeh Shen goes to the festival, but leaves in a rush when she suspects she has been recognised. And and as we all know, in her haste to leave, she loses one of her slippers.
The slipper is eventually found by a poor man, traded, and brought to a nearby King who (like the king in Rhodopis) is enthralled by the thought of a girl with a foot so small it could fit into the shoe (in Chinese culture, the practice of foot binding and having small feet is often a symbol of beauty and status). The King goes in search of the slipper’s owner, but unable to find her, puts the shoe on display in his kingdom.
Yeh Shen eventually comes to take her slipper back and is instantly suspected as a thief. She is brought before the King and relates her tragic story, and the King quickly realises that she is the one he has been searching for.
At the end of the tale, Yeh Shen and the King marry. And we learn that the stepmother and stepsister are banished from the kingdom and eventually killed by a shower of stones.
In this Chinese story, the narrative elements that come to make up the Cinderella tale are clear. Characters like the stepmother and stepsisters are present and equally as horrible, the ballgown and shoes are magically bestowed upon her after she makes a wish, and she attends a festival, where she loses her slipper in the process, and so on.
The themes of transcending class barriers and the rise of the servant girl to a status of royalty still remain; and this is theme we continue to see in many other fairy stories, such as Snow White, the Goose Girl and Rapunzel.
It’s a little unclear exactly how (other than through oral storytelling in general) these ancient tales passed down through time and subsequently spread from one culture to another, and how the Yeh Shen story in particular became embodied in the western canon (if anyone has any ideas or knowledge on this, please share!).
Nevertheless, let’s take a closer look at how Perrault and the Grimm Brothers further evolved the Cinderella tale and adapted it into the common story we know so well today.