Is This Egyptian Fable The Oldest Cinderella Story?

You know how the Cinderella story goes. A girl gets mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters until her Fairy Godmother turns up. Magically decked out in a beautiful gown, pumpkin-shaped carriage, and extremely impractical footwear, she is able to attend the prince's ball. She catches his eye, but has to flee before the magic wears out. But, because she left one of her glass slippers behind, he's able to scour the country until he finds the perfect foot that fits it. And they all lived happily ever after. But that's not the only version, and it's certainly not the oldest. This ancient Egyptian version from the first century C.E. just may be a contender, though.

The Story Of Rhodopis

Here's how the most basic version of "Rhodopis" goes, according to the Greek historian Strabo. The beautiful courtesan Rhodopis was bathing in her hometown of Naucratis when one of her sandals was snatched up by a passing eagle. The eagle then flew to Memphis, and dropped the sandal on the pharaoh, who was "administering justice in the open air." Struck by the shapely footwear and the strangeness of the occurrence, he had his men scour the countryside until they found the woman it fit. They found her, brought her back to the pharaoh, and the two of them lived happily ever after. Sure, it's not exactly the same, but it's got a low-born woman getting together with the lord of the land, a bizarre footwear discovery, and a country-wide search for the right set of feet. Seems pretty open and shut!

Not everybody agrees, however. Writing for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Joshua J. Mark notes that the version of Rhodopis that most people are aware of actually comes from a much later source. In 1920, children's author Olive Beaupre Miller included the story in an anthology of fairy tales, and her version had a lot more similarities the Cinderella story we know. Instead of a courtesan, Rhodopis is a fair maiden who even has a knack for conversing with animals. In fact, there really was a celebrated courtesan named Rhodopis, but she lived approximately 700 years before Strabo, and she was from Thrace, not Egypt. In Mark's view, the connection between Rhodopis and Cinderella is entirely coincidental, and largely due to later authors (starting with Strabo and going all the way up to Miller) conflating the real person with older, more mythical tales. It's hard to say who's right, since even if Strabo made the whole thing up, it still could have informed later versions of the fairy tale.

Cinderellas Of The World

Okay, maybe Rhodopis isn't the first Cinderella (or maybe she is). But either way, the Cinderella that we all know has tons of cousins from all over the world. Meet the Ella family.

  • Cendrillon (France, 1697). She's the oldest version that most closely resembles the Disney movie. You don't even have to squint too hard. Charles Perrault's telling introduced the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, and even the glass slippers. One big difference? The stepsisters apologize for being the worst and then go on to marry princes of their own. Hurray!
  • Ye Xian (China, sometime between 618 and 907 C.E.). Instead of a talking mouse named Gus, Ye Xian's best friend is a talking fish — who her stepmother unceremoniously kills and feeds to the stepsister. But then both of them get stoned to death after Ye Xian wishes on the fish's bones to be able to attend the ball. H-hurray?
  • Aschenputtel (Germany, 1812). First of all, in the Grimm Fairytale version, her name means "Ash Fool." Yikes. Little Aschen spends a lot of her time crying by her mother's grave, which causes a magic tree to grow. The tree then turns into everything she needs for the ball. You know how the rest of it goes.
  • Cenerentola (Italy, 1634). Here's the dark and gritty version of Cinderella you always wanted. It starts with our heroine, known then as Zezolla, being convinced by her governess to kill her stepmother. She does, and the governess promptly moves in with her six daughters. Then some magic happens, she loses a shoe, and marries the prince. No word on if she ever faces a rap for that murder charge, though.

Five Fairy Tales That Were Way Darker Than You Realized

Key Facts In This Video

  1. In the original “Cinderella,” the step-sisters also saw off parts of their feet to attempt to fit into the glass slipper. 00:45

  2. In the original “Snow White,” the step-mother is forced to put on hot-iron shoes at Snow White's wedding and dance until she dies. 01:18

  3. In the original “Rapunzel,” the prince is forced to jump from the tower and gets his eyes gauged out by thorns upon landing. 02:27

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 17, 2017

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