Cinderella must be one of the most popular fairy stories of all time. Lots of erudite people have offered their opinions as to why. Of course, it’s the sort of classic ‘rags to riches’ story that never fails to get bums on cinema seats. But to me, with my mythologist’s hat on, it’s much more than that, and yet none of the experts that I’ve read, so far anyway, have been able to get into the weave at the level of the magic carpet, which is the sort of golden pumpkin conveyance that this yarn really is.
Just as Cinderella is whisked away to the palace, so we are whisked away with her to another world; a world where a myriad of symbols and characters jostle for our attention to tell another story, the oldest love story of all … the eternal love story of twin souls … and that’s why we love it.
Even the heroine’s very name, Cinderella, tells us that she is no lowly maid but the goddess protector of the hearth.
‘Cinders’ obviously refers to the remains of the fire, while El is one of the oldest god names in the Bible, even older than the monotheistic God. ‘Ella’ is its feminine form and it means goddess in Hebrew.
The keeper of the hearth can be compared to the keepers of the sacred flame, the Vestal Virgins – one of the most exalted ranks available to a female in per-Christian Rome. These priestesses were highly influential and magical powers were attributed to them, just as if they were shamans.
In those days, the hearth itself was considered the holiest place in the house, even in the most lowliest of homes. Families kept statues of their household gods on their mantlepieces, who they would pray to, to receive picture messages from the flames and to ask for their protection. It’s probably where the word ‘mantlepiece’ comes from – one of the older meanings of the word ‘mantle’ is a protective cloak that symbolises pre-eminence and authority.
The Vestal Virgins would be in service to the sacred flame for 30 years, after which time they were released to make a prestigious marriage. So this, I think, makes a perfect metaphor for a young woman waiting for her True Husband in a sacred marriage that will be born, like the phoenix, out of the ashes of the hearth. In the much older version of Cinderella from the French storyteller Charles Perrault, she was named Cendrillon, meaning ‘she who lives among the ashes’.
Whether or not a shaman woman is initiated into this sacred love magic is down to the ancestral spirits, who know her destiny and who bring her together with her destined Beloved in the Other Worlds when the time is right. And so who better than her fairy godmother to facilitate her entry into another world to meet him?
The glittering, gilded, marble ballroom of the prince’s palace must have seemed like another world to this ash-smeared scullery maid.
The wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters are also staples in this kind of myth structure. Without them and their selfish deeds, the action would never get going. Many a mythological hero has achieved a resoundingly successful completion of a journey around the zodiac that he never would have even attempted had not a malicious stepmother sent him off on his travels in the hope that he would be eaten by dragons!
The mice, rats and lizards, who are magically transformed to guide and attend Cinderella’s journey, are of course the shamanic power animals of the Underworld.
And perhaps the round pumpkin-coach that transports Cinderella to her destiny in the Other Worlds could be compared to the round drum, the steady pulsing of which transports the shaman into trance? Or maybe it represents an egg; shamans I’ve trained in discovering their destiny usually meet the vehicle of their destiny in the form an egg, as did I.
Once the beat of the drum stops, the shamanic journeyer has to leave the enchanted realm and return to this one, just as Cinderella has to return home on the stroke of midnight. However, she has left her glass slipper… and the erotic undertones of what follows next reveals the message of sacred love and sex that underlies this yarn.
Will the slipper fit, is the big question? Will it be too small, or too big … or just plain dried up and unattractive?
A wide variety of folklore supports the notion that the slipper can serve as a symbol for the vagina.
Booth, quoting Jameson, reports that among the Manchu, a bride is expected to give gifts of slippers to her husband’s brothers who, since group marriage is practised, become her sexual partners through the marriage. These slippers are ornamented with lien hau, which is a vulgar term for the female genitals.
Bruno Bettleheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
And I think that’s, by the way, why there are so many shoemakers and cobblers in myths, who mend soles (souls) on their lasts … but perhaps that should be another story for another day.
What is most important about the glass slipper is that it is the object that connects her to her Lover in the Other Worlds. It is the catalyst that compels him to set out to find her in this one!
And so they meet, and fall in love, and live happy ever after! If that all sounds a bit hackneyed and corney or unrealistic, well … fairy tales like this one are not about this reality where everything, almost as soon as it’s born, starts to deteriorate, including even the most promising relationship.
This story is about everlasting spiritual love, the sacrament of the sacred marriage, and that lasts a lot longer …well, at least long enough for the couple to slip off together, over the pink-and-purple sunset horizon, and get on with enjoying eternity together!