Happy New Year! It’s January: a time of new beginnings and fresh starts! What about Cinderella? What’s her beginning? I’ve traced Cinderella to her earliest known source – in Egypt! Even older than the Chinese versions, the Cinderella character began as a Greek slave in the story of Rhodopis. Dating from the first century BC, this folktale not only deals with class and slavery, but also nationality/ethnicity.
Stolen from her homeland in Greece, poor Rhodopis is mistreated by her fellow slaves. She’s given the hardest work and then, when her pale skin burns in the sun, they call her “Rosy Rhodopis.” This follows our typical Cinderella storyline with her fall from grace (captured into slavery) and then abuse by her peers. However, I’ve seen some versions that have her treated unusually well by her new master, right from the beginning.
Either way, the man who bought Rhodopis sees her dancing and is entranced. He gives her beautiful, red-gold slippers!
The slippers fit with our fairytale expectations, but does she go to the ball? No, she doesn’t have to go anywhere. A falcon, thought to represent the Egyptian God Horus, steals her slipper and carries it straight to the pharaoh. He is smitten with the pretty little shoe, never even having set eyes on Rhodopis! The earliest versions of Cinderella are often like this, with no meeting at all. Similarly, we aren’t really given any idea of Rhodopis’ thoughts or feelings.
The Pharaoh Amasis sends out his men, declaring that the owner of the slipper will be given a high place in his Royal House of Women! Tempting, right?
In short, we’ve seen that Rhodopis, old as it is, really has a lot of the typical elements we associate with Cinderella: mistreatment and hard work, a lost slipper, and royal endings. I was thrilled to find such obvious common elements! It really supports the idea that this story could be the origin of the Cinderella we know today. Tracing Cinderella is an anthropological journey: consistent with Ancient Egyptian customs, Rhodopis is a Greek slave, her shoes are red, and a Pharaoh rules the land. These pieces were adapted and changed as the original story spread to different cultures and was influenced by increasingly modern norms.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cinderella’s many guises, check out Introducing Cinderella!
“The Girl With The Rose Red Slippers.” Cinderella: The Ultimate Collection. Lexington, KY: Enhanced Edition, 2014.