I’ve finally started making good on my promise to myself to attend more witchy classes at my local pagan store. I attended a class on Spring in traditional witchcraft. Trad Craft is what I’ve been moving toward for years now. Largely through books and the work of Peter Paddon, I’ve been building my own understanding and practice. One of the topics that briefly came up was the Phoenix story/symbol (it wasn’t actually party of the class, but it came up in a question someone had). It struck me that Cinderella is a phoenix story.
When I think of Cinderella, I don’t think of the cleaned up Disney version. I’ve taught fairy tales and I’ve studied them. These aren’t the tales that Disney sells. D.L. Ashliman collects 23 different Cinderella tales using the Aarne–Thompson classification systems. The classification for Cinderella involves the dresses and the shoes – yes, plural because in most versions, she has 3 costume changes.
For me Cinderella begins in ash – literally Ella of cinders (or perhaps Elle, girl, of cinders). She is the phoenix being reborn. She rises from the ashes and finds her freedom.
How she gets her dresses varies. In most versions another woman helps her. I’ll take a brief digression here to point out this becomes a story that shows women both helping each other and competing against or hurting each other.
In an interesting note in some versions, Cinderella chooses the dresses she wants (and in some versions she is not trying to get a man). Her dresses, the three times she recreates herself, is the process of her becoming. She finds her voice and agency. She is not the sister left at home – the sister with no hope or options. She takes charge of her life, makes choices, and accepts the consequences for them.
“Ashenputtel” by Arthur Rackham
In the versions where Cinderella becomes a queen and she often metes out justice for the wrongs committed against her – and I write justice, not vengeance. I think of the film Ever After where Cinderella speaks out to save the lives of stepmother and sisters- condemning them to the same treatment they gave her; thus, they end up working in the palace laundry. The Grimms most common version has pigeons peck out the eyes of the sisters and mother – but this is not at Cinderella’s orders.
The most common ending is simply that the sisters have mutilated themselves in an effort to make the shoes fit. Cutting off their toes or heels in order to shove their feet into the magic shoe. Again, I find this to be a reminder of becoming. Are we becoming our authentic selves (and yes, I often hate that phase)? If we must mutilate ourselves, we are not becoming, we are breaking, we are bleeding, we are not restoring ourselves. Cinderella becomes. She rises from the ashes, she changes and grows (using the 3 dresses) and finally she erupts into herself authentic self, claiming her right to be queen and walks away from those that would tear her down. She walks away from those whop would mutilate themselves rather than grow – those who choose to inflict damage on others rather than aid others.
In the end, Cinderella rises from the literal ashes, and the ashes of her life. She becomes – over and over – not immediately but with each dress, with each trip into town or the ball or whatever – she is in the act of becoming. Until at the end she is able to emerge fully the blazing Phoenix. – the bringer of light and hope.
“Émile Bertrand – Jules Massenet – Cendrillon poster” (1842—1912)
At it’s most witchy connection, I also learned that there is a Baba Yaga – Cinderella story
** Side Note**
Until I wrote this article, I hadn’t realized that Cinderella and the lesser known (at least in the US) Donkeyskin are related in the AArne-Thompson system. It makes sense as they both involve 3 magic dresses). Donkeyskin is classified as a “fathers who want to marry their daughters” story. These are creepy as I think incest stories always are. I first read a Donkeyskin story decades ago, picking up the novel length retelling written by Robin McKinnely called Deerskin. It is an especially dark story because the heroine is under constant threat of rape by her own father. While the story generally doesn’t have the connection to ashes that Cinderella has, it is another story of being reborn – or becoming.
Featured image is Harry Clark’s illustrations from the 1922 edition of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault