July 22, 2020

Glass Sandals?

        Once upon a time there was a young woman who had been brought far from her home in Greece and forced to serve as a slave in Egypt.  One day as she was bathing, an eagle snatched up one of her sandals and flew away with it to Memphis, where the pharaoh was seated in his courtyard hearing the cases of his people.  The eagle dropped the sandal directly into the pharaoh’s lap, where he was so taken with its beauty and its marvelous arrival that he determined to find its owner.  He sent his men in all directions across the entire kingdom to find the woman who had worn this remarkable sandal, and when they found her, she was brought to Memphis.  There she married the pharaoh and lived happily ever after as queen.
        Sound familiar?  This tale is considered to be the oldest known variant of the “Cinderella” folk tale.  It was first reported by the Greek writer Strabo some time between about 7 BCE - 24 CE.  Strabo gives this Cinderella the name Rhodopis, which means “rosy-cheeked.”  About 200 years later a Roman writer gives Prince Charming, aka the pharaoh, the name Psammetichus.  The story was apparently a popular one right from the get-go, and got conflated with several other semi-historical tales.  First off, there was a 6th century BCE hetaera or courtesan called Rhodopis, whom some writers considered to be the same woman, while others thought she was unrelated.  This second Rhodopis was supposedly a fellow slave of Aesop, and a lover of the brother of the poet Sappho.  She in turn was conflated with legendary Egyptian queen Nitocris, and said to have had the third pyramid of Giza built by her lovers to be her tomb.  I don’t remember that part from my familiar version of “Cinderella!”
        I’m inclined to think of the sandal story as independent of the other bits, and consider it by itself.  At its most basic: a young woman working as a slave is eventually married to royalty after being matched to footwear that came into the royal bachelor’s possession.  This ancient Greek version obviously lacks all the other details we know so well, from the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, to the ball.  I think its most important defect is that our couple don’t actually meet or fall in love, however at-first-sight-ly.  At least in “Cinderella” they have a chance to get to know each other over 1-3 evenings, according to the version.  If they’ve actually had a chance to meet it makes more sense that the prince wants to find the maiden he’s grown to love, and that the maiden is delighted to marry the prince she’s grown to love.  I’m sure the eagle in this ancient Greek version was sent by the gods or fated in some way to unite Rhodopis and Psammetichus, but it all seems very random!  However, it is true that some versions of “Cinderella” have an important role played by a white bird that throws down to our hero whatever she needs.  Could there be a connection between Aschenputtel’s white bird and Rhodopis’s eagle?
        What do you think?  How useful are shoes as a matchmaking device?  How many balls would you want before choosing a life partner?  And how many times has a bird thrown something useful into your lap?

[Pictures: Greek Slave Girls at the Fountain, engraving, drawn by E. Klimsch;
detail from Egyptian Dancer, engraving after painting by H. Makartboth, from Ridpath’s Universal History, 1894.]

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