“So, what’s it all about, and why so many adaptations? Can we ever really know what the true, authentic interpretation of this story is? And does it really matter?” I asked at the end of my last blog post about the Cinderella story.
Well, “Seek and ye shall find,” says Jesus. “Ask and it shall be given. Knock, and the door shall be opened.”
So, come on in! The log-fire’s burning and the sweet chai’s brewing, so make yourself comfortable, and I’ll begin…
It seems the oldest record we probably have of the story is from a Hindu tale of a Rajah and his daughter. She is born with a golden necklace containing her soul, and if it is taken from her and worn by another she will die. The Rajah buys his daughter a pair of beautiful golden, jewelled slippers, one of which slips from her foot while she is walking in a forest and is found by a prince who vows to marry the owner. In jealousy, another of his wives takes the golden necklace from the girl and she dies – but she doesn’t lose her beauty or her sparkle. When the prince finds out the secret of the necklace, he restores her to life and they live happily ever after.
One of the explanations given for this story is that the daughter is the Dawn. Her inevitable descent into darkness is the night-time, and the prince is the morning sun, ever chasing after his Aurora, his beautiful day.
That explanation got me thinking. It was written over a hundred years ago and is quite a simplified explanation for what may be a far deeper and more ancient story. The more I started working with this story, the more it started working with me. These stories, if we let them, can touch the deepest and most ancient parts of our selves and they carry deep, deep magic and mysticism. These stories that have held a place in our hearts for so many thousands of years hold the power to heal and transform our lives.
To me, the explanation of the sun’s journey for this story is itself symbolic. We must begin to accept that our ancient ancestors may have had a far more complex understanding of the Divine than we currently hold. That the origin of all myths and legends is in those tales we now call fairy tales or folk tales… All born of the Divine Poetry and spiritually-figurative imagination of our ancient fathers and mothers… Or, perhaps, from an altogether more mysterious source indeed.
Here’s a brief outline of some of the key elements of this tale and what they suggest to me.
This can be interpreted as a story of the soul’s journey from darkness into light. The mother’s death at the beginning could be symbolic of our separation from our Divine Mother-Father when we are born into the world, or perhaps represents a premature severing of the mother-father energy that keeps us connected to God while we grow, or at least both and more. Temporarily, the soul seems to be in darkness and despair, isolated and alone. Only the reunion with the Divine can heal the wound that was created. So, as we reach maturity, our mother/surrogate-mother takes on the role of preparing us to meet our Soul Mate, knowing that through this spiritual union of Love, the Divine Communion will be restored.
These are just some of my thoughts, and I’ll expand on them another time, maybe. But the best illustration I can give is the story retold in my own words.
Once, a mother lay dying on her bed. Squeezing her daughter’s hand, she sang, “I will always love you, beautiful one. My love is always with you, like the stars and the moon and the sun.” With those words, she closed her eyes and left the world.
The child, though she was young, was comforted by her mother’s song: Whenever she felt sad, she would look up into the sky, remember her mother’s love and feel strong again. She would smile and sing to herself, and her sadness would melt away.
But her father was inconsolable. No words or songs or memories could lift him from his despair, so deeply did he feel the loss of his wife. He sat motionless, looking out over the endless ocean and wept bitter tears. His hair grew so long and tangled that it hung down beneath his chair, snaking its way around his feet, binding him to the stones of the earth. His tears cut a channel and flowed like a constant river to the sea.
In time, a governess arrived to take charge of the young daughter. But the governess was hard and cruel; she had two daughters of her own who were jealous and proud and they soon started giving orders to the young girl.
“Polish my shoes…”
“Brush my hair…”
“Clean our room…”
“Wash my clothes…”
Each demand became more difficult and exacting. The sisters and their mother became more cruel.
“If she wants to eat from our table, she should earn her food.”
“Sweep the floor…”
“Clean the chimney…”
Until the daughter turned into a slave in her own home. She had to rise before dawn to light the fire, collect the water, clean the house and prepare the food. She had to stay up late into the night to sweep the floors and wash the clothes. The sisters grew tired of sharing a room in the house, so they took the daughter’s room for themselves and made her sleep on the hearth where she got covered in ashes and dust from the fire. Her clothes became tattered and torn.
They looked at her with scorn and disgust.
“She’s so filthy, I can’t bear to be seen near her!”
“She deserves to be turned onto the streets, she’s so ragged!”
“What shall we call her? Raggydress?”
“I know, Cinderella. She’s always covered in soot and cinders from the fireplace.”
Through all this, Cinderella would look up into the sky and sing her mother’s song in her heart. Her sadness would melt away for a few moments and she would smile again, remembering the love of her childhood.
One day, while she was out collecting vegetables for the soup, a crooked old woman called to her.
“Would you help me gather my herbs?”
The old woman seemed so bent and haggered, Cinderella thought she must be in a lot of pain bending down to pick the herbs herself, so she went over to help her. As Cinderella picked the herbs, the crone sang a tune so much like her mother’s song that Cinderella wept tears of love, watering the herbs in the ground.
For three days this continued. Cinderella would go out to the garden and help the old woman, who sang her song while Cinderella wept and watered the herbs, which grew and grew and grew.
At the end of the third day, when Cinderella was serving the soup at the table, the sisters rushed in with such a commotion they knocked their own soup bowls to the floor.
“What a mess, you clumsy girl,” they said to her. “Clean this up at once!”
“And fetch us some more soup!”
Scrubbing the stones beneath the table, Cinderella could hear their excited chatter.
“Oh, Mama! A messenger from the Prince has invited all the beautiful women of the land to a ball!”
“A ball to find the Prince his wife!”
“We’ve been invited, naturally. Two invites for this house, and your beautiful self, Mama.”
“Two invites,” thought Cinderella and she wept a little tear onto the floor.
The next day was all busy-ness and bustle as the governess and her daughters prepared for the ball.
“Cinderella, comb my hair. Make it the most beautiful style in the kingdom.”
“Cinderella, tie my sash. Make it the most beautiful bow in the country.”
Cinderella fetched and she carried, she combed and she tied, she made perfect all their imperfections and she held the mirror for them to admire.
Then the governess noticed that she was looking a little sad. “Ha! Sure, child, you didn’t think that YOU’d be invited to the ball? Oh, what a thought! Why, you haven’t any beautiful clothes to wear, and you can’t dance. No, it would not be proper at all for you to be seen in company.”
“Especially not the Prince’s company!” Squealed the sister. “Goodness, what an embarrassment that would be!”
“It’s not a ball for serving girls. It’s a dance for beautiful ladies. There’s no place for you with your torn clothes and work-maid’s hands!”
“Now,” said the governess, “you’ve plenty to do here. Pick this bowl of poppy seeds from the ashes of the fire. See that it’s done by the time we get back. And don’t miss a single seed.”
With that, she emptied the bowl of tiny black seeds into the grate, swung open the front door and left with her two daughters. A swirl of wind rushed in from the open door, spilling the mingled ash and seeds still further about the place.
Cinderella started to sweep all the mess back into the fireplace and separate the seeds from the ash, singing her mother’s song as she worked. Singing and working, singing and working; Cinderella looked round to find the old crone bent over the fireplace with her and in no time, they’d picked all the poppy seeds back into the bowl.
“Thank you. How may I ever repay you?” Cinderella asked.
Without answering, the old woman went out to the garden and planted one of the poppy seeds into the herb bed that Cinderella had been watering with her tears. The seed grew, and grew and grew. When the brilliant red flower blossomed, the crone, still humming the song of her mother, picked it and handed it to Cinderella.
In that instant, Cinderella was transformed. Suddenly she was wearing the most delightful dress imaginable. It glistened and shimmered with indescribable colour and hues of light. On her feet were the most delicate slippers made of pure gold and her hair was clean and combed, and as beautiful as could be. She smiled a true smile of joy, and her face shone with the luminous radiance of beauty.
She was unrecognisable when she arrived at the ball. Even the governess and her two daughters didn’t know who she was. They gasped in awe and wonder at the sight of this unknown Lady.
“Her dress is the colour of the stars!”
“Look, it shimmers like the moon on water!”
“Her face is as radiantly beautiful as the sun!”
Everyone was struck by the beauty of this mysterious young woman, and everyone wanted to be close to her. As for Cinderella herself, she had never been treated in this way before. But her gentleness and good nature seemed to rub off on all those she met, and the sounds of happy laughter rang out around the palace.
When the Prince arrived in the ballroom, he saw nobody but her. From that moment on, he would not dance with any other, and when anybody asked Cinderella for her hand in a dance, he would say, “She is my partner in this dance and all the dances.” He fell in love with her from the moment he saw her, and declared that she would be his wife.
But as the evening came to a close, Cinderella, knowing that she could not stay any longer, slipped away from the Prince and ran swiftly back home to the hearth where she would not be discovered. The Prince looked everywhere for his love, but he could see her nowhere. All he could find was one of her golden slippers, fallen from her foot on the palace steps as she fled.
“Whoever can fit their foot into this golden slipper will be my bride,” he vowed.
All the women of the kingdom tried. The two sisters from Cinderella’s own house pushed their way forward for their turn – both certain that the shoe would fit and the Prince would be their prize.
“Squeeze your heel in!” Snapped the governess, pushing the shoe on so tightly that blood started to run from her daughter’s heel.
“No, that’s not the right fit,” the footman sighed.
“Push your toe in!” Blood gushed from the other sister’s foot.
“No, not you,” the footman grumbled.
When all the women of the kingdom had tried the shoe and none had made it fit, the Prince didn’t know what to do. He sent his retinue out into the towns and villages to find any young maiden who had not yet tried the slipper.
In time they arrived at Cinderella’s house.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scowled the governess. “Of course she wasn’t at the ball. She’s no lady fit for the Prince. Look at her. All dressed in tatters and covered in dust and ash!”
But the Prince’s men were insistent. “Our orders are to try every young woman in the land, madam,” they said and beckoned Cinderella over towards them, sitting her onto a stool and slipping her foot perfectly inside the shoe.
Everybody gasped. It wasn’t possible!
Then, from the pocket in her apron, Cinderella took out the perfectly matching golden slipper and put it on.
Instantly, she stood wearing her dress of starlight and moonlight; her hair was beautifully clean and combed, and her face shone with the radiance of the sun.
She was taken in the carriage to the palace, where the Prince recognised her at once and rejoiced at his beautiful bride. All the kingdom celebrated the wonderful wedding day. The Princess had never been happier.
And there they live still, singing the song to their children: “I will always love you, beautiful one. My love is always with you, like the stars and the moon and the sun.”
(C) Sally-Shakti Willow October 2012