Who hasn’t seen some version (or all) of Cinderella at the movies? The magical story sweetened by Disney is a popular narrative totem. However, its very ancient origin is not so well known. It is true that the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault collected the story from oral tradition. But it goes back much earlier. In a slave girl called Rhodope is the Egyptian origin of Cinderella.
The Greek slave girl
This story was collected by the Greek geographer Strabo.Who was Rhodope? A young Greek girl kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Egypt. Her master was a good man but little aware of what was going on at home. It turned out that the other girls in the house mistreated the foreigner Rhodope.
She was always taking care of the most thankless chores in the house. She was accompanied by birds, a monkey and an old hippopotamus. Then there took place a royal act summoned by Amosis I in Memphis. The young Greek girl was dressed in her best clothes, including sandals of red gold. But… that’s right, the others stopped her.
Then a falcon – supposed incarnation of the god Horus – stole the sandals from the Greek girl. And he took them to Pharaoh, who saw a divine design in the scene. So he gave the order that “all the maidens of Egypt should try on the sandal. And the mistress shall be their queen. Sound familiar?
Pharaoh went up and down the Nile looking for the mistress of the sandals. Until he came upon Rhodope at last. The Greek historian rescued the story of Rhodope centuries later. And Herodotus tells that one of the pyramids of Giza was built by her or for her.
The story of Rhodope was present in the Greco-Roman tradition. It was inherited by European literature until it became the modern Cinderella. In the 17th century, the Neapolitan Giambattista Basile included the story of Cenerentola in his posthumous anthology “The Tale of Tales” (1634). This is the story that later directly inspired Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
All the characteristic elements of the tale are there. The wicked stepmother, the envious stepsisters, the magical transformations, the loss of the shoe.
Perrault preferred to dispense with the over-the-top violence of Basile’s text. In this story, there is a first stepmother. She is killed by the protagonist: she breaks her neck. Walt Disney’s 1950 film is faithful to Perrault’s tale almost in its entirety. But in Perrault’s case, Cinderella ultimately forgives her wicked stepmother and her two stepsisters. Disney decided against it.
None of them, however, can change the Egyptian origin of Cinderella. A story that continues to amaze thousands of years later.