Once upon a time there was a gentleman who married, for his second wife, the proudest and most haughty woman that ever was seen. She had two daughters of her own, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things. The gentleman had also a young daughter, of rare goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.
This is the opening of one of the most famous versions of the most well-known fairy tale of all time: Cinderella. Specifically, this is the version by Charles Perrault, from which one of the most beautiful and famous Disney classics of all time was drawn: Cinderella from the now distant 1950.
The Disney classic, therefore, is inspired by the most famous and well-known version of the ancient fairy tale; in reality, however, it is estimated that there are about 700 versions of Cinderella fairy tale around the world. In practice, any small, remote, and semi-unknown place has its own version of the fairy tale of the sweet mistreated girl and her beautiful shoes, which, as we will see shortly, are not always crystal (in fact, in some versions they are missing).
With this article, we begin a new section, “Once Upon a Time” in which, starting from the Disney fairy tales and the versions they are inspired by, we fly around the world collecting what, in our opinion, are the oldest, most beautiful (or even ugly why not) or otherwise particular versions of the ancient fairy tales.
So, sit comfortably in front of a fireplace, prepare a nice cup of hot chocolate, and come with us into the magical world of fairy tales…
A very well-known fairy tale
As previously mentioned, there are an infinite number of versions of Cinderella, and according to some folklore scholars, there could be as many as 700! Now, you may wonder, how can a story be told in 700 different ways? It can if you consider that some of these versions are often very different from what we are used to. To give you an understanding of what I mean, today I will propose 8 versions of this fairy tale, some of which are very old.
That of Perrault, which the classic is inspired by, is one of the “most recent,” as it was reworked by the famous French writer in 1697; but the fairy tale was already well known before. The most well-known Italian version, for example, by the literary writer from Campania Giambattista Basile, was published in the collection “Lo Cunto de li Cunti” between 1634 and 1636. While that of the Grimm brothers is from the beginning of the 1800s.
Before them, however, the fairy tale had already traveled a very long journey around the world, getting to know different people. According to some scholars, in fact, one of the oldest versions comes from ancient China, dating back to the Tang dynasty, and here Cinderella is called Yeh Shen.
In short, the versions are really many and each of them, often, has substantial variations that reflect the culture and history of the originating peoples. Some versions, in addition, resemble the more well-known version of Perrault; others still, a little less, and have decidedly macabre and horror-style consequences.
With this introduction, here are the versions I have chosen for this article.
According to some scholars, the oldest version of Cinderella story would even come from ancient Egypt. I was undecided whether to mention it or not because this version has been greatly revised over the years and many “false” versions of the story circulate on the web. Furthermore, according to the scholars, this story is so different and there are so few ancient sources that mention it, that some do not consider it a truly ancient version of Cinderella. In the end, I decided to include it because, according to another part of scholars, it remains effectively the “first” Cinderella in history.
Cinderella in this version is called Rhodopis and is a courtesan from the Greek colony of Naucratis, in Egypt. Her story is mentioned first by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, in which more than a Cinderella is mentioned, but a very rich and famous courtesan; and then by the ancient Greek geographer, historian, and philosopher Strabo. In particular, Strabo’s version is of interest to us and is taken from his work ‘Geography’. It is rather brief, here it is:
They tell the fabulous story that, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis; and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king.
This is the version told by Strabo. Later, various versions of this legend flourished over the years and centuries and blended together, and according to them, Rhodopis seems to have been a slave serving a king, mistreated by other jealous slaves. However, these versions seem to have no original sources to verify them and the version told by Strabo remains the only one with an actual source.
2 – Yen Shen, the Chinese Cinderella
Another ancient version of Cinderella story, which actually has many similarities to the story we know, comes from Ancient China. The story of Yeh Shen, or Ye Xian according to some, dates back to the Tang dynasty, which ruled from 618 to 907 AD. The first source to mention the story is a miscellaneous work, the ‘Youyang zazu,’ which contains various things, ranging from collections of stories to anecdotes, as well as descriptions of natural phenomena and many other things.
In this version, the shoes are golden and the fairy is replaced by a goldfish and a kind of guardian angel in a hippie style. Also, the stepmother really has a bad end, worthy of her stupidity, as you will see soon.
This fairy tale tells of a man who once lived and had a daughter named Yeh Shen. The young girl was beautiful, intelligent, and knew how to work with gold and tableware. The father, after the death of his first wife, decided to remarry, however, shortly after, he died, leaving the young girl in the clutches of the stepmother who had decided to enslave her with heavy and dangerous work. One day Yeh Shen, while working, came across a goldfish and, fascinated, decided to keep it with her by throwing it into the pond behind her house and sharing her food with it every day.
Unfortunately, one day the stepmother discovered the young goldsmith’s secret and, with deceit, caught and cooked it for breakfast. When Yeh Shen realized what had happened, she broke into tears. It was then that a man appeared to her, saying he came from heaven, dressed in rough clothes and with his hair loose on his shoulders. He consoled her and told her to take the fishbone that the stepmother had hidden under the manure, hide it in her room, and pray every time she needed something. The young girl followed the suggestion and was able to get anything she wanted, whether it be clothes, food, or precious stones.
One day, a party was announced and the stepmother, to prevent Yeh Shen from attending, ordered her to stay at home to guard and work. However, when the stepmother and her daughters had left, the young girl questioned the fishbone and was immediately dressed in a green silk dress and golden slippers. When she arrived at the party, however, after dancing a lot, she saw the stepmother and her daughters and, fearing recognition, ran away leaving behind one of her golden slippers. This was found by a man who gave it to the king of a nearby kingdom who, in turn, fascinated by the small shoe, issued a proclamation for the girl to be searched for.
Once found and made to try on the slipper, he decided he would take her with him and marry her, while the stepmother and step-sisters were condemned to stoning and killed.
My personal moral of the fairy tale is this: if the stepmother had been smart and clever enough, she would have earned a lot more by exploiting Yeh Shen’s goldsmith/craftsman skills; but, you know, envy and stupidity are two bad beasts.
3 – “La Gatta Cenerentola” (the Cinderella Cat) of Giambattista Basile
The first Italian version of Cinderella is “La Gatta Cenerentola” by Gian Battista Basile. This version of the fairy tale, although very similar to the plot we are familiar with, has aspects that are distinctly more realistic and in some places, violent. It was published between 1634 and 1636 in Basile’s work, “Lo Cunto de li Cunti”, a collection of 50 popular fairy tales written in the Neapolitan dialect. In this version of the fairy tale, Cinderella is named Zezolla and, although she is beautiful, she is quite different from the Cinderella we are used to.
In this version, Zezolla/Cinderella is indeed the daughter of a prince and is mistreated by her stepmother, but tired of the woman’s cruelty, the poor Zezolla complains to her seamstress teacher who seems to love her. At this point, the plot of the fairy tale takes a distinctly thriller-like direction. The teacher (who seems quite deviant, let’s face it) incites Zezolla to kill the stepmother and surprisingly, she accepts happily in a perfect killer-doll style. However, the murder does not prevent her from becoming a full-fledged Cinderella. The teacher becomes the new stepmother but, after an initial improvement in her treatment of Zezolla, she suddenly changes her mind and starts mistreating her, favoring her six daughters who, until then, she had kept hidden from both Zezolla and her father. The father, in all of this, plays a decidedly ungrateful role: first, he seems to adore his daughter, then, incited by the new stepmother, he starts to completely disregard her and allows them to treat her badly. One day the father, returning from a trip, brings her a magic date palm tree, which in this version of the fairy tale has the role that the forgetful fairy and Yeh Shen’s goldfish have. Zezolla cares for the tree and makes it grow until a fairy is born, and thanks to her she is able to dress in princely clothes and participate in the king’s feast where he sees her and, of course, loses his mind and falls in love. Desiring to marry her, he has her followed by a servant on various occasions (Zezolla goes to the feast for 3 consecutive nights) until she loses a shoe, the version of our glass slipper, which is less elegant and consistent with a shoe called “zoccolo” with a typical 14th to 17th-century heel.
Thanks to the magical shoe, the king finds Zezolla, marries her, and the stepsisters become envious, as expected. If you’d like to read the whole fairy tale, I’ll refer you to this website. You can find it on page 5 of the book.
4 – The Charles Perrault Cinderella
Perrault’s “Cinderella” is the one that the Disney classic is inspired by. The fairy tale was first published by the French writer in the collection of stories “Mother Goose Tales” in 1697, under the name “Cendrillon”, the French version of the name Cinderella. In France, at that time, there was a fashion at the king’s court, of telling stories and fairy tales. It was in this atmosphere that Perrault, a man of great culture, created his collection taking inspiration from eleven traditional fairy tales, which he reworked in a way that was suitable for the sophisticated language of King Louis XIV’s court and, at the end of each of them, he also added a moral.
The success that followed makes it one of the most famous and well-known collections of fairy tales today. Perrault’s version is basically the one told in the Disney film. The Disney artists were quite faithful to the original fairy tale, changing only very few details. For example, in the original fairy tale Cinderella goes to the ball twice and not once and loses the slipper only on the second evening. The dress is made of gold, silver, and precious stones and, during the ball, Cinderella shows polite manners with her stepsisters who do not recognize her. Another point that differs is the fact that in the fairy tale it is the stepsisters who appear to be more wicked and cruel, while the stepmother is mentioned only at the beginning and then, in fact, is not mentioned anymore. In addition, at the end, Cinderella forgives the two girls, brings them to court, and makes them marry. The moral that Perrault reports at the end is double: that grace and kindness are a much better gift than beauty itself; and that you can be as brave, noble, and clever as you want, but all this is useless if you don’t have someone to help you in case of need (in this case, the fairy). If you want to read the full version of the fairy tale, you can find it here.
5 – The Brothers Grimm Cinderella
The title of the Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella is “Aschenputtel” and, like every good fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers, it has its own macabre parts, although less than Basile’s assassin Cinderella. The fairy tale of the two German brothers was published between 1812 and 1815 in the anthology of fairy tales, “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” As often happened with Grimm’s fairy tales, in subsequent editions of the collection each of them underwent various changes, so that each fairy tale has, in turn, more versions (just to complicate our lives a little more). This fate also happened to Cinderella and the version I am talking about here is the most well-known version of the Grimm Brothers. The Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella is a mixture of the sweetness of Perrault’s and Yeh Shen’s Cinderella and the cunning of Basile’s Zezolla.
While remaining always similar in plot to Perrault’s, it actually has some substantial changes. In this case, the stepmother is much more present than Perrault’s stepmother and, when Cinderella asks for permission to go to the party, she invents truly bizarre stratagems to avoid letting her go. She throws a plate full of lentils into the ashes of the fireplace and tells her that if she can pick them all up within two hours, she can also go to the party. Cinderella is helped by the doves and her friend pigeons (Snow White style), but her efforts are in vain because the stepmother makes her repeat the game several times until, tired of the fact that Cinderella always manages to finish the work on time, she tells her outright that she will not go to the ball. Another substantial change is that of the role of the Fairy. From fish and dates to the hazelnut plant, which Cinderella is given by her father on his return from a trip and which she plants on her mother’s grave. By watering it with tears of despair the plant grows and, every day, a white bird goes to perch on the branch that expresses all of Cinderella’s desires, throwing her what she wants, including stunning clothes and shoes (which also vary from evening to evening). As in Basile’s case, here too, Cinderella goes to the party three times, and each time with clothes and shoes made of gold, silver, etc. However, the fateful shoe, on the third evening, is made entirely of gold. The stratagems with which Cinderella escapes from the party are also various and no mention is made of the time. The first evening she disappears by jumping into a dovecot, the second on a pear tree, and the third the prince, a little more cunning than the princes of the other versions, has tar spread on the stairs and one shoe gets stuck there. Another difference is the end of the two perfidious stepsisters. One cuts off a toe of her foot to be able to fit into the shoe, the other a piece of her heel. Then, as if that weren’t enough, on Cinderella’s wedding day, while they are on their way to church, two birds pluck each of the two eyes, one on the way and the other on the return. If you want to read the full version of the fairy tale, you can find it here.
6 – The Native American Cinderella
So far, these are the classic versions of Cinderella fairy tale and the most well-known and historically important in Europe. However, to give you an idea of how widespread and varied the fairy tale is, I’ll also mention this version, which originates from Native Americans.
From my research, I discovered that there are also various versions of the Cinderella story among Native Americans. One of these is called “The Rough-Face Girl” and is a tale originating from the folklore and legends of the Algonquin tribe.
Obviously, being part of folklore and culture so far from European one, this version of Cinderella is very different from what we’re used to, but the moral and underlying theme are the same. I took this version from the one published by Rafe Martin and David Shannon in the book “The Rough-Face Girl.” In this case, Cinderella is a girl with two envious sisters and the prince is a powerful warrior known as the Invisible Being. The story is very long and particular to tell all here. Moreover, is really beautiful and unique and I recommend reading it directly in full. You can find it at the Youtube link above.
7 – The Irish Cinderella – Ashey Pelt
Another unique version is the one collected in Ireland titled ‘Ashey Pelt’. Regarding its sources and history, I was unable to find much. I can only tell you that it seems to have first appeared on “Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution, and Custom” in 1895. The author also states that the fairy tale was told to him by a woman in her sixties, originating from the province of Ulster, Ireland.
The story itself is rather short and has all the ingredients of Cinderella’s fairy tale. There is her, who in this case is called Ashey Pet, there are the step-sisters who cut their feet to fit the silk slipper, and there is the wicked stepmother. The biggest difference is made by the fairy godmother, which in this case is interpreted by none other than a black sheep. The sheep tells Cinderella/Ashey that by striking a stone with a sort of stick three times, she will get everything she wants. If you want to read the entire fairy tale, you can find it here.
8 – The Norwegian Cinderella – Kari Trestakk
Another very particular version of Cinderella comes from Nordic and snowy Norway and its title is ‘Kari Trestakk’ in Norwegian, but it is more commonly known in English as ‘Katie Woodencloak’.
This version of Cinderella appeared for the first time in the collection of popular tales and legends “Norske Folkeeventyr” by the writers, folklorists, and scholars Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published the work several times between 1841 and 1844.
The Norwegian Cinderella, in turn, has many variations in the country itself and is one of the most popular and known Norwegian fairy tales.
In the version reported by the two scholars, the most famous, Cinderella is the daughter of a king who, having become a widower, remarries a queen, who is also a widow and has the function of the evil stepmother. She, in turn, has only one daughter who serves as a stepsister but does not have a major role in the fairy tale other than mutilating her feet at the end as usual.
The role of the fairy godmother changes from a sheep to a bull. The young girl, in fact, is sent by the stepmother to keep watch over the livestock (a kind of Cinderella Cowgirl in practice) and here she makes friends with the aforementioned bull who decides to help her and, through a magic cloth that comes out of his ears, helps the young girl to eat and not die of hunger. The fairy tale continues in a very elaborate manner and, above all, Cinderella experiences many more adventures than in classic versions. Let me tell you that, for example, when the stepmother finds out that the bull helps the girl, she decides to have him killed. The two at this point decide to escape and, through a series of adventures, arrive at the castle of a prince. Another difference is right here. The meeting between the two, in fact, does not take place through a ball. The bull, in fact, gives her a wooden cloak and tells her to present herself at the castle as Katie Woodencloak and to ask for work there. Then he asks her to kill him, cut off his head, skin him, and put his skin behind a rock. In case the girl needs anything, she just has to go there, knock on the stone and ask. The story continues but, in summary, the young girl presents herself to the prince several times. Sometimes as a servant, sometimes dressed in copper, silver, and gold (and it is the golden shoe that is fateful), thanks to the help of the ‘former bull’. When she presents herself as Katie Woodencloak/servant, the prince ridicules and mistreats her; when she is well dressed, the prince falls in love with her more and more. You can read the entire fairy tale here.
For now, we have come to the end of this small collection, but there are really so many versions of Cinderella around the world and I promise to expand the list soon!!
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- Legends, Myths, and Folktales, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc
- La fiaba di tradizione orale, G. Gatto, LED Edizioni
- Cinderella Stories Around the World, C. Mari
- World Folklore for Storytellers: Tales of Wonder, Wisdom, Fools, and Heroes: Tales of Wonder, Wisdom, Fools, and Heroes; H. J. Sherman
- Popular Tales from the Norse