The Cinderella tale common in most households is one of the most pervasive narratives in human culture and across global geography. Types of this story exist as far back as 2000 BCE in the Sumerian Inanna texts (Anderson 39-41). Classic Greek historians, such as Sappho (600 BCE) and Herodotus (fifth century BCE), recount historical legends with all the elements of the Cinderella tale (Anderson 27-29). In 1893, Marian Roalfe Cox published a 600 page volume recounting 345 different variants of the Cinderella narration across the globe and throughout history. This work provides the foundation for Cinderella categorization and research.
The common rendering of the Cinderella tale in popular culture descends from a 1697 French version written by Charles Perrault (Dundes, ed. 14-21). Perrault wrote an anthology of vernacular folktales, and in many instances, as in his version of Cinderella, modernized them by adding elements (the glass slipper is a Perrault invention) and moral themes (his tale makes Cinderella the pinnacle of grace–Cinderella forgives her cruel sisters and marries them off to lords of the court). This version of Cinderella has become mainstream in modern times, and subsequent versions (such as the films Slipper and the Rose, Ever After, Disney’s Cinderella, Maid in Manhattan, and so forth) are based on Perrault’s own adaptations.
Perrault’s version of Cinderella, however, omits a host of images, symbols, and themes found in earlier variants. While the scope of this paper cannot address most of these omissions, it will focus on one central image common in worldwide renditions of the story: the tree. Different versions of the story are here examined, but for the purposes of space the Cinderella-like events which occur in these stories are often left out. Nevertheless, each of these tales share the essential Cinderella elements: a poor yet beautiful girl is inflicted with trials, oft times by a stepmother and cruel sisters, and/or sometimes with a descent into the underworld, and through a divine boon, usually given by a tree or representative of the tree (such as a bird), the girl is transformed into a princess, is given a new identity, and marries a royal figure. This marriage takes place oft times after a further trial, such as the fitting of a garment or shoe. As stated, the fulcrum of these versions spins around the image of a tree.
As far back as the Inanna texts, it is the image of the tree (in this case the huluppu tree or date palm) which takes the place of the fairy queen or godmother, dispensing gifts and jewels to the distraught princess-to-be. Through the help of this tree, Inanna is able to ascend into the world of light and marry Dumuzi, the prince, but only after a series of Cinderella-like trials. Another and later version by Sappho recounts the tale of Doricha, which is a near copy to Herodotus’ Rhodopis, whose essential elements are summarized in Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World as follows:
A girl called Rhodopis was a slave in the household of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis (‘Firegodville’) in Samos. She was taken to Egypt by Xantheus (‘Goldman’) where she was given her freedom by Charaxus (‘Seabream’/’Vinepole’) of Mytilene. There she worked as a courtesan and while she was bathing in Nacratis an eagle carried her shoe to the Pharaoh; after finding it was hers by testing it on all the women in the country, he married her. As a thank-offering she gifted a collection of iron ox-roasting spits to Delphi. (28)
In this ancient version, it is a Vinepole which gives gifts and boons to Rhodopis, just as the huluppu tree did for Inanna. Also an eagle delivers the identifying item to Pharaoh. Curiously, the Vinepole is also associated with the sea. This account is similar to the version given by the first Greek prose writer, Pherecydes of Syrus (sixth century BCE) who writes of a wedding between Zas (Zeus) and Chthonie (underground-girl). Zas gives Chthonie a robe associated with a winged-oak tree, and beautifully embroidered with images of earth and ocean, which the dirty and ragged Chthonie puts on, and after her marriage, transforms into Ge or Mother Earth (Anderson 38).
Moreover, in the earliest known European variant of the Cinderella tale, written down by Giambattista Basile and entitled Cat Cinderella, the protagonist is given a magic date from a date tree which miraculously grows delivering to her gifts, including new and beautiful robes glittering like the sea. Furthermore, the tree gives her a new name: she is no longer known as Cat Cinderella, but as Zezola. With this new identity and her heavenly robes, she enamors the king, who seeks to marry her, but must first match her with her lost slipper (Dundes, ed. 3-13).
Still further, the earliest known Western European tale (twelfth/thirteenth century CE) is titled Le Fresne (Ash-tree girl). In this version an infant girl is left with a ring and brocade (as tokens) near an ash tree (her protector). She is raised in a nunnery and becomes a beautiful young girl. A traveling prince meets and falls in love with her, but he must marry a royal. On his marriage night (to another woman) Fresne enters his room as a chambermaid and leaves her brocade on the bed. The mother of the Prince recognizes the brocade as belonging to royalty, and Fresne’s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince.
One interesting connection with this variant of the story is the name of the girl as ash-tree. Cinderella’s name comes from the root cinder, meaning ash, and has most often been associated with the ash of the hearth. However, as Anderson notes of Fresne, “… this is not the ash of the fireplace, but the ash tree; the two are, however, liable to confusion throughout Germanically-related languages and in that context a confusion may have arisen” (Anderson 42). Thus, the “cinder” in Cinderella is not only linked to the hearth, but may be principally lined to a particular tree.
Finally, in Harold Bayley’s Lost Language of Symbolism, Vol. I, Bayley recounts variants of the Cinderella story where Cinderella herself is a tree. In some of the these stories she is named “Maria Wood,” “Maria Wainscot,” and “Princess Woodencloak.” Bayley writes “According to these variants, a wooden sheath is fitted around Cinderella’s body, or an oak-tree log is hollowed out so as to form a petticoat, and Cinderella gets in and out of her wooden sheathing at will” (229).
In all of these versions, from the Sumerian, to the Greek, to the earliest European episodes, the girl who plays Cinderella is directly related to a tree. As stated, Anderson even suggests that the name Cinderella derives from the ash tree itself. In any case, this tree acts either as her protector, her fairy godmother, and/or her boon and giver of gifts, and in every case is associated with giving the Cinderella character a new identity. This new identity comes via a new glittering wardrobe associated with oceans, heavens, and even the tree itself. In many of these stories glorious, bejeweled shoes, or slippers are also given, and provide the key for the marrying king or prince. Furthermore, as part of her new identity, sometimes the tree literally gives the Cinderella character a new name (as in the case of Zezola).
There are as many interpretations of the Cinderella tale as there are versions of it. These interpretations tend to congregate around psychological analysis. Thus, Bruno Bettelheim, in his Uses of Enchantment, gives a Freudian interpretation of the story, naming Cinderella and her two step-sisters a type of competition for the parents’ attention and the conflict arising between them as the conflict between child and parent (238). The hearth (from which he derives Cinderella’s name) is associated with the mother, and to live in it is to hold onto and return to the mother persona (248). Further, Bettelheim interprets the shoe or slipper as the vagina, and that Cinderella’s proper footing into it at the king’s request an act of growing into puberty (265).
In another psychological attempt at interpretation, Marie von Franz uses a Jungian approach, suggesting that the death of Cinderella’s mother and the re-emergence of a helping animal or figure (such as the tree) is the loss of the mother archetype re-emerging in a different form. “Therefore the mother’s death is the beginning of the process of individuation,” von Franz writes, “…the daughter feels that she wants to be a positive feminine being, but in her own form, which entails going through all the difficulties of finding that” (Dundes, ed. 207). With this understanding the tree becomes the emerging archetype which leads to individuation.
Yet these specific interpretations miss the very long and ancient traditions of the tree, which have always been used as an emblem of the cosmos itself. In ancient mythology the tree was in fact called the “Cosmic Tree,” “World Tree,” or the “Tree of Life.” Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the globe. He writes:
The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44)
According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. Thus, as von Franz cites, trees are planted at the center of all old German, Austrian, and Swiss villages (von Franz 13). The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).
The tree in all the variants of the Cinderella tale listed is the cosmos, whose gifts of jewels and other boons (such as the jeweled slipper) is akin to clothing the fairytale princess with the robust grandeur, fertility, and majesty of a paradisaical Eden. And Cinderella is in fact an image of the renewed earth arising from the underworld of winter, of an ice age, of desolation. Her shoes are a clear key to this understanding, for the Earth has always been the footstool of the gods: “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool…” (Isaiah 66:1). No clearer connections could be made than that of the Greek version where Zas (Zeus) clothes Chthonie with the new robes of a glittering sea and a winged tree and gives her a new name, Ge, or Mother Earth.
These are no idle comparisons. In Bayley’s analysis he gathers numerous descriptions of the new garments given to the Cinderella character in a wide variety of tales. These new robes are described as “sea-coloured”, “dark blue covered with golden embroidery,” “like the waves of the sea,” “like the sea with fishes swimming in it,” and the “colour of sea covered with golden fishes” (212). Furthermore, her shoes are also often described as “blue glass” like the sea, or as brilliant as the “Sun,” or sometimes pearl-embroidered (226).
In all these descriptions the image of the cosmic waters is apparent, and as already stated the cosmos was represented by the tree. But in ancient mythology the Cosmic Tree never stood alone, but was always associated with deep waters. The World Tree of the Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, Cuna Indians, and numerous Native American and African tribes was always surrounded or planted near a river, spring, or ocean whose waters were linked to the tree. In fact, this mythological cosmology was built into ancient temple structures all over the world. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles and that the standing stones of circles are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).
Wherever we look in myth the Cosmic Tree and the waters are wedded. Thus, when the Cinderella figure is made to put on robes like the sea, or slippers bejeweled with pearls, immediately a cosmic connection between heaven and earth is made. Indeed, numerous cosmogonies of the ancient world cite that whenever a new earth is created it rises from the waters. This is the imagery in Genesis, not only at the creation, but after the deluge, where the waters above and below co-mingle and Noah must build an ark from trees to survive the deep. Curiously, Noah sends forth a bird who discovers the first dry land to appear and brings back, clutched in its beak, a twig from an olive tree. Here too, the tree gives the gift of life, and here too the tree is connected with the cosmogonic waters.
Furthermore, in ancient cosmologies, the earth was a place of polarities and oppositions. Every seed must grow from decay and darkness just as every fish, in some manner, must swim upstream. Likewise, the earth itself repeatedly descends into the underworld of winter and rises again, re-robed and re-named, in spring. These cycles in nature are not just dependent upon each other, rather, they are wholly interdependent with each other. In ancient Hindu, the word for this relationship is yajma, which denotes the cosmic sacrifice which creates a new cosmos: even the sun, which brings all life and light to the world, does so only by burning off its corona, or shedding forth its rays in the act of yajma. For the Chinese, this understanding is revealed in the yin and yang symbol: life and death and light and darkness are apart of one great whole.
This is important to note because the life cycle of all living things on earth is itself revealed in the name “Cinderella.” As previously noted, cinder means ash, and seems to provide a double-entendre of both the ash tree and the ash produced by the burning of a tree. The “ella” of this name, according to Bayley, comes from the Greek Ele, which means “shiner or giver of light” (192). Bayley continues, “Ele is the root of Eleleus, one of the surnames of Apollo and Dionysus. It is also found in Eleuther the son of Apollo, in Helios the Sun, and in Selene the Moon” (192). The Finnish Cinderella is named Clara, meaning “to shine” or “brilliant to the sight.” The Jewish name is Cabha, meaning “aurora” (192). And ancient Hellespont takes its name from Helle, “to shine forth.” In Greek myth Helle was a maiden who fled her cruel mother-in-law and fell into the sea and drowned (192).
The name “Cinderella” conveys the double meaning of ash and tree, but also a further double meaning of the light that is produced by the ash and the tree. The light produced by the tree is seen in her glorious robes of the sea. The light produced by the ash is another matter, and provides a subtle complexity to this character. One cannot escape the double wardrobe of Cinderella. Before she is given her new glittering robes she is usually found in dirt and rags. Bayley again cites numerous instances where her clothing as a lowly housemaid reflects the “cinder” of her name. She is often robed in mouse skins, ass skins, or cat skins (225).
It is curious indeed that the mice in numerous Cinderella tales appear repeatedly. Sometimes the mouse provides Cinderella’s clothing; oft times the mouse is an animal helper, or transforms to pull a golden coach. Strangely, the mouse is associated with ancient gods of light. For example, the mouse was sacred to the sun god Apollo: white mice were usually kept in his temples and Smintheus, the Mouse, was one of Apollo’s appellations (Bayley 224). Furthermore, the mouse was sacred to Horus, the Egyptian god of light, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, is often seen with his foot upon a mouse (Bayley 225). Just so, Christ’s triumphal ride into Jerusalem is upon an ass, mindful of another form of Cinderella garment, just as her cat skins hale back to ancient Egypt where the lowly hearth cat was always associated with light (Bayley 225).
These relationships have never been fully explained. Why are the lowliest creatures often associated with the greatest beings of light? Perhaps a bridge fording this dichotomy is provided in the Cinderella tale by the image of the bird. In Inanna, Rhodopis, Cat Cinderella, and a host of other versions, it is the bird which brings gifts from the tree to the Cinderella character. In The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, birds are explained as the symbols of the soul and are most often found perching in the branches of the World Tree (87-90). Additionally, they are the prime connectors between Heaven and Earth, causing the transformation and creation of cosmos by brooding upon the waters (such as in the Genesis accounts of the Creation and Flood). In each of the Cinderella tales listed, a bird comes to Cinderella’s aid only when she is in the pit of the underworld, or in the form of the housemaid, wearing the mouse skins of the pauper girl. Hence, the birds which bring Cinderella her boons, and sometimes her glittering sea robes, are the universal messengers of cosmos who are the transforming agents of the ash: transmuting hearth to tree, dark depths to gleaming sea. Yet what activates the birds communication between heaven and earth is the lowly state: the mouse skins, ass skins, and cat skins are the footings of the noble robes and the new name. In cosmogonic myth, they are the “foundation stone” upon which creation is hung. Seen in this sense the birds are the universal energy, the world soul, which engender growth from decay.
Of course, one cannot ignore the obvious fact that the great beings of light in ancient mythology are also great beings of virtue (Apollo, Horus, Ganesha, and Yahweh being prime examples). Their associations with lowly animals–mouse and ass skins–provide evidence for the source of their virtue. They are the humble, gracious, lords of light, shining forth because they have themselves descended into the depths. Light cannot shine without darkness, and gods of light shine because they comprehend the lowest states of being. Cinderella is just such a character, and in this role as neophyte, she transforms from lowly yet humble soul into the royal bride of Heaven by which she shines forth in gleaming robes. In fact, these robes can be worn by none else: truly it is only the meek which shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
Cinderella is an ancient and ubiquitous tale. It’s associations in classical myth are overabundant with cosmological motifs. The primal image suggesting a cosmological interpretation is the Cosmic Tree which in numerous versions provides the boons to the Cinderella character. Associated with this tree are deep waters, birds, and lowly animals, all part of the cosmogonic process for both the Earth and for the individual soul; Cinderella is a representation of both. As Chthonie she is literally Earth, and in so many variations the image of Earth reborn and enfolded in gleaming sea robes under the branches of the World Tree. As individual soul, she is the being of light who descends below all things so she can ascend above all things. She is the caretaker of the ash, which is another way of saying she is the tender of the flame. Ultimately, it is the flame of cosmos, above and below, which accounts for her destiny as courtesan of the Sun and bride of the Bridegroom. Truly she is both ash and tree.
Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.
Bayley, Harold. Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairytales, Folklore, and Mythologies, Vols. 1 and 2. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1912.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. By John Buchanan-Brown. London: Penguin Group, 1996.
Cook, Roger. The Tree of Life: Images for the Cosmos. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 1979.
Dundes, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Casebook. Madison, Wisconsin: UP Wisconsin, 1988.
Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991.
–. The Sacred and the Profane, the Nature of Religion: the Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1957.
Parry, Donald, ed. Temples of the Ancient World. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994.
Varner, Gary R. Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2002.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996.