Cinderella as feminine archetype; Vesta searches for Wisdom

October 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm Leave a comment

by Milky Way Maid

The newest Disney version of the Cinderella story, while an unfortunate and pale renewal of their classic animated musical, affords us an opportunity to re-examine the roots of this ancient fable. We will track down the etymology of her name, trace her many variations, and try to nail down some of the other characters in the tale.

Cinderella bears much in common with several others fairy-tale heroines such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and in some ways even Rapunzel. Snow White and Cinderella meet princes who wish to marry them, but run away from their suitors. One wonders what kind of free-floating guilt they suffer from, that these princesses do not feel worthy of handsome young princes unafraid of commitment. But be that as it may, these heroines bury themselves in service to the poor (Snow White), in household chores (Cinderella), and of course to a drugged sleep (Sleeping Beauty). They all get ‘rescued’ from their misspent lives, but not until a suitable period of time has passed or at least not until they feel they have earned the reward of living “happily ever after.”

Most of the time the period of servitude is not specified, but Sleeping Beauty is said to sleep for twenty years or in some versions, a hundred years. She could have gone to a lot of balls in that time. She does, however, enjoy the virtue of remaining forever youthful, and that is worth something, at least.

I prefer to separate Rapunzel from these other heroines, for the reason that I think she primarily fills the shoes of another archetype, namely Ceres aka Demeter. Ceres is often pictured with long blond hair. What is the reason for blond hair, I wondered, and then it came to me. I read that her wavy tresses represent the fields of golden ripe wheat. This equivalency is repeated in many icons of her, where she holds up an ear of wheat and it overlaps the representation of her hair. The theme is repeated again when Rumplestiltskin weaves straw into gold, both images that conjure up related images of golden wheat.

The fact that in more than one version of this myth, Cinderella has, or is one of, seven sisters, (or has seven handmaidens) makes we wonder if the stories are referring to the legendary seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, located in the shoulder of Taurus the Bull. Note that only six of the stars are readily visible to the naked eye, and that the seventh (Cinderella?) is hidden — presumably inside, doing her household chores.

Her Name or Names

First, her name, Cinderella. One source says it is related to the god Sin, the Assyrian God of light. The etymology of the word ‘cinder’ is taken directly from Wedgewood’s Dictionary of English Etymology: “It should be written Sinder, corresponding to German Sinter; Dutch Sindel; Sintel, Old Norse. Sindr signifying in the first place the brilliant sparks which are driven off when white-hot iron is beaten on the anvil . . . The origin of the word is seen in Old Norse Sindra, to sparkle, to throw out sparks; a parallel form with Tyndra, to sparkle. In Germany Zunder is used as a synonym with Sinder.”

BTW her name is also related to that of Sinbad, of the Arabian Nights tales. Sinbad translates as “sparkling prince” or “sparkling bright.”

The fact that one of her primary chores is to clean out the fireplace and keep the flame lit, gives a major clue to her role and identity. Cinder therefore relates to the cinders of the fire, but her job as keeper of the hearth and the flame harkens back to the Vestal Virgins of ancient Greece, and in particular to Vesta, who was specifically charged with those tasks.

In other versions of the story, she goes by the names Nina (Palermo; this was another name for Ishtar), Cendrillot (French version with a male counterpart to Cinderella), Dona Labismina (Brazil), Mary or variants of that name like Mara in a Serbian version, Mariucella in Corsica, Barbarella (Sardinia; derived from Gnostic words for wisdom), Clara (Finland; it means shining), Zizola (Bologna), Cabha (Jewish; it means Aurora), Lucy (Jutland, from the same root as lux= light), etc.

Recalling the tasks assigned to Psyche, one of which is separating mixed grains —  This task is performed for her by ants. The SAME TASK is also assigned to Cinderella, at least in one version of her story where she is called by the name Cendrillot. Also note that Psyche has two nasty sisters (“haughty hags armed with wicked minds”) and so does Cinderella.

Those Slippers

According to many explanations of the Cinderella story that I read while growing up, the glass slipper was supposed to have been the result of a horrendous error of translation from the French. The words for glass and sable sounded alike, and this mistake was carried through to the Disney movie. (Glass is verre, while varre can mean furry.)

But there is an older tradition of crystal slippers, going back as far as the Song of Solomon, who praises her lovely shod feet.

Sometimes Cinderella’s shoes are described as blue glass, sometimes golden, other times as ‘Sun’ shoes, or embroidered with pearls or other jewels, or simply described as matchless.

Feet beautifully shod are emblematic, says Swedenborg, of the love of making oneself useful.

And that is the main clue to Cinderella’s main virtue, and that is that she is willing to perform even the most repulsive tasks as an act of love for one’s fellow man. She kept a household, but unlike most well-to-do women she joined in the housekeeping chores. As in the book of Solomon, she was often found “at home employed in the midst of her female servants and easing their labor by sharing it herself.”

In many of the versions of her story, she is given some lowly task after her sisters disdain to perform it. She gives her services for nothing, and volunteers to perform all their dirty work. In one version, the sisters refuse to delouse the head of an old man or a fairy, or in one version, the Virgin Mary. Cinderella accepts the task and as she combs out the nits and lice, they turn into pearls and jewels as they fall. Harold Bayley, in his book The Lost Language of Symbolism, likens this to Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples; “the meaner the service, the greater its beauty.”

Her Dresses

Well, it would never do to wear rags with such legendary shoes. In the Disney film, some helpful mice sew her a wonderful gown to wear to the ball, as directed by her fairy godmother. But in many stories, Cinderella wears a series of wonderful gowns to a ball or banquet. It is not clear to me if she changes from one to another in course of a single night (like Cher in a typical concert), or if she appears at a long series of banquets, each time in a marvelous gown.

But at any rate, her dresses are described thus: one is woven of the stars of heaven, one is made of moonbeams, one is of sunbeams, then there is a pearl dress without slit or seam (what, she has to be sewn into it, like Marilyn Monroe?), another is made of all the flowers of the world, one is covered with golden bells, a gold dress trimmed with diamonds, a robs of silk thread thick with diamonds and pearls, one is blue like the sky at midday and other blue like sea, one is jet black and another as if made of light. And another one of all colors. Whew. She sounds like Princess Diana, who had so many dresses that she could auction them off for charity.

Sometimes all these gowns are hidden one under the other, hidden underneath a humble cloak of cat-skin or mouse-skin. In Egypt, the mouse is sacred to Horus; white mice were sacred to Apollo.

Parallel Stories

The most complete and most compelling of the parallel stories to Cinderella are The Song of Solomon (in which Solomon courts The Fair Shulamite), the Isis and Osiris story (in which Isis at first fled the advances of Osiris because he was her brother), and the Cretan pageant of the Sun and Moon, where the king and queen put on masks as bull and cow, and enacted the divine marriage. The Shulamite is forced to perform menial tasks by some proud sisters, but eventually Solomon wins her and takes her to the banqueting house.

There are other points of contact with the story of Ishtar, when she descends into the underworld, and Allatu plays the part of the evil stepmother, and Uddushu-Namir is the prince. Venus is unexpectedly cast as the evil stepmother when she assigns impossible tasks to Psyche, out of jealousy of her extraordinary beauty. Cupid plays the prince in that story.

In a Slavic version of the story, the prince has to answer some riddles posed by the princess. One of the riddles goes like this: “I existed before the creation of Adam. I am always changing in succession the two colors of my dress. Thousands of years have gone by, but I have remained unaltered both in color and form.” The answer is that she is Time, and her two colors are black and white, for day and night.

Time is said to be an attribute of Wisdom. This is echoed by the dress of pearls. Pearls represent Truth, and are a symbol of the Soul or spirit encased within our bodies. The number seven is traditionally associated with Wisdom, with the process of looking within for answers rather than to a book or guru. So filled with the gift of Wisdom is she, that when she combs out her hair, showers of pearls fall from her head.

In Bayley’s “The Lost Language of Symbolism,” St. Bernard asks who the Bride is in the Song of Solomon; his answer is that she “is the Soul thirsting for God.”

SOURCES and extended reading list:

Bayley, Harold, The Lost Language of Symbolism, Dover Publications Inc., New York, an unabridged reprint of the 1912 edition by Williams and Norgate, London.

Heiner, Heidi Anne, Cinderella by Marian Roalfe Cox, Part of The SurLaLune Fairy Tales Pages, www.surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/marianroalfecox/variants/333.html

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