The version of Cinderella best known today is based on the Perrault story of 1697 called Cendrillon and that of the Brothers Grimm of 1812. Cinderella is the daughter of a widower who marries a woman with two daughters of her own, as a proud and bad-tempered as she is. Cinderella is reduced to the level of a drudge in her father’s new family. She is dressed by her step-mother in rags or a grey cloak and, after her work is finished, sits by the chimney-corner among the ashes of the fire, her face and hands and clothes blackened by soot. It is announced that the king’s son is to give a ball and invites all the young women of the kingdom to it so that he may choose his bride from among them. Cinderella’s step-sisters are invited and she helps to dress them for the ball, while they taunt her about her dirty clothes and the impossibility of her going to the ball with them. The step-mother and her daughters leave and Cinderella sits weeping by the ashes of the fire.
Suddenly her fairy God-mother appears, finds her crying and says she shall go to the ball. She sends Cinderella into the garden to fetch a pumpkin, hollows it out, and striking it with her wand, transforms it into a golden coach. Cinderella finds a trap with six white mice in it which are changed into white horses. Her God-mother suggests a rat for coachman and selects one of three she finds in a trap. It is transformed in a similar manner. Six lizards are found behind a watering pot and become footmen. Cinderella’s God-mother then transforms her blackened rags into a sumptuous dress of silver and gold which glitters with jewels and gives her a pair of glass slippers, warning her to leave the ball before midnight, when chariot, coachman, horses, footmen and herself will all resume their original forms. Cinderella promises to remember the warning and sets off for the ball, where she is greeted by the prince who has been advised of the arrival of an unknown princess. Her beauty amazes everyone at the ball and the prince falls deeply in love with her and will dance with no one else. Cinderella leaves the ball before midnight and returns to her god-mother, asking to go again the next night. The two sisters return and tell her of the beautiful princess who has enchanted the prince. Again, Cinderella goes to the ball in a dress more splendid than the one she wore the previous night. Again, she leaves before midnight.
On the third night however, she leaves too late, and as she hurries away from the palace, midnight strikes, and she finds her dress has once again become rags. She makes her way home without coach or footmen. The prince rushes after her, but she eludes him. However, in her haste, she leaves a glass slipper on the steps of the palace and this the prince retrieves. Questioned as to the path of her flight, the palace guards say they have seen no-one save a poorly clad girl with one glass shoe. The prince declares he will only marry the girl whose foot fits the shoe he holds. He comes eventually to Cinderella’s home where the step-sisters try to fit their feet into the slipper. In some versions they cut off their heel and toe to squeeze their foot into it. Cinderella asks to be allowed to try too as the step-sisters mock her. When the prince places the slipper on her foot, she draws the other from her pocket and puts it on. Her God-mother appears and transforms her rags into a beautiful dress, whereupon she is recognised as the princess at the ball. Her step-sisters beg to be forgiven for the way they treated her. Cinderella forgives them and is taken to the palace for her marriage to the prince. So runs one version of the fairy tale which never fails to enchant.
Fairy-tales speak with the immemorial wisdom of the soul to provide the elements which have been ignored or devalued by the cultural tradition. They tell the story of what has happened to the missing elements and what still needs to happen for the balance in archetypal imagery to be restored. They may therefore conceal within their symbolic language both an historical record and a prophecy. The story of Cinderella has many possible interpretations, including the modern feminist one, but Harold Bayley, in the early years of this century, was the first to see it as a story of the soul’s transformation, and to connect it with Gnostic, Egyptian and Sumerian myth. Included in this “story of the soul” is her bondage to a cruel step-mother, the mysteries of her transformation with the help of her “true” mother, God-mother or fairy God-mother, the quest of the prince to find his bride, and finally the celebration of the royal marriage. With masterly economy, the story of Cinderella reflects at the archetypal level the soul’s perennial plight and need, and bears witness at an historical level to her experience during the many centuries of her sojourn in time and space. Bayley’s interpretation seems to me to be one of the most relevant and interesting contributions to the questions being raised today with regard to the nature of consciousness.
At the beginning of this century, in his book The Lost Language of Symbolism, (1) Bayley traced the historical transmission of many different stories and symbols that centred around the image of light hidden in darkness, a light which had to be rescued, redeemed and recovered. Through a profound knowledge of the etymology of words, and an equally profound knowledge of European paper-making and water marks which were the medium of transmission of Alchemical and Gnostic ideas during an era of cruel persecution, he drew an astonishing picture of the relationship between mythology and the fairy tales that found their way into many different centres of European culture. Some 345 versions of the story of Cinderella from all over the world were gathered together and published by the Folklore Society sometime before he started his book, (2) and he drew on a wealth of material from these to show the relationship between Sumero-Babylonian mythology, the Song of Songs, (Song of Solomon) Gnostic imagery and this fairy tale. The interpretation which follows is grounded on his associations.
Cinderella personifies both the exiled human soul, cut off from Paradise and her Mother and Father in heaven, and also from the ‘light’ of the Holy Spirit of Wisdom which is hidden within the soul, unsought and unrecognized until events are set in motion by the appeal to her God-mother. The story of Cinderella reveals the outlines of the great Bronze Age lunar myth of the sacred marriage between the goddess and her son-consort, transmitted from the myths of Ishtar/Tammuz and Isis/Osiris, to the Gnostic myth of Sophia and her bridegroom, Christ. In the fairy tale, the ancient myth is given a human context, instantly reflecting human experience and human emotions, although the archetypal structure is present throughout. The images of the radiant fairy God-mother, together with the motherless daughter, Cinderella, and the prince who choses her for his bride, suggest that the story belongs to the mystical Wisdom tradition enshrined in the marvellous poetry of the Song of Songs, which was derived from the texts of the sacred marriage rituals between goddess and god that were celebrated in the temples of Egypt, Babylonia and Sumer. In the fairy-tale, the Mother Goddess of the pre-Christian and Gnostic past has become the fairy God-mother, mistress of the art of transformation and of all the ‘disguises’ worn by the eternal life-spirit. Cinderella (the soul), in her servitude and despair, and her blackened rags, knows nothing of this God-mother – her true mother – or her power to transform sorrow into joy, darkness into light. Her tears call to mind Sophia’s lament in the Gnostic Pistis Sophia, which in turn echo the words of the Shulamite in the Song of Songs:
And I was in that place, mourning and seeking the Light that I had seen on high. And the watchman of the gates of the Aeons sought me, and all those who stay within their Mystery mocked me… Now, O Light of Lights, I am afflicted in the darkness of the chaos… Deliver me out of the matter of this darkness, so that I shall not be submerged in it… My strength looked up from the midst of the chaos and from the midst of the darknesses, and I waited for my spouse that he might come and fight for me. (3)
Cinderella, like Sophia and Persephone in earlier myths, cries out in her distress to her mother in the invisible, ‘transcendent’ world. As in the Greek myth where Hermes descends to Persephone, so in the Gnostic one, the Mother Sophia, in response to her daughter’s cry for help, sends her son, Christ, to rescue his sister. Her son is the embodiment of Light and Wisdom, who descends into the darkness of his parents’ furthest creation to awaken his sister to remembrance of her true nature and divine origin. In the fairy tale, the God-mother responds to the call for help with her gift of the power of transformation, which brings Cinderella to the meeting with the Prince, and after the lunar three days ‘trial’ or ‘darkness’, to the royal marriage.
What echoes there are in this myth of the descent of the Sumerian goddess Inanna into the dark underworld of her sister goddess Ereshkigal, her three days’ ‘death’ or severance from the light, starry world of her origin, and her ‘resurrection’ after her rescue by Enki, the god of wisdom. In Sophia’s exile, there is also the resonance of Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and suddenly this Biblical myth becomes transparent to the image of the soul’s ‘fall’ into unconsciousness or separation as, responding to the urging of the serpent – the primordial image of wisdom and immortality – she chooses to leave the paradise of the Garden and embark on her evolutionary journey.
In the Gnostic myth of Sophia, the soul is personified for the first time as the daughter of the Mother Goddess and Father God. In one of several versions of the myth, Sophia is the Virgin Mother Goddess, named as the power of Wisdom through which life brings itself into being; the womb which generates as her child, all worlds and levels of being. Like the Shekinah of Kabbalah, she personifies and radiates Light as the informing energy of these worlds. The Mother Sophia gives birth to a daughter, the image of herself, who descends into these worlds, but loses contact with her heavenly origin, and in her distress and sorrow brings the earth into being, at the same time becoming lost or entangled in the realm of darkness that lies beneath the realm of light. A curtain or veil comes between the worlds of light and darkness, making it impossible for her to return to her Mother and Father. She is condemned to wander in this dark labyrinth, “labouring her passion into matter, her yearning into soul”. (4) The imagery of this late creation myth is very similar to that of the Shekinah and the emanations of the Sefiroth, and there is a close parallel between the exiled Sophia and the exiled Shekinah, who are both cut off from the divine world of their origin. There may even be a Kabbalistic source for certain elements of the story, for the “widower” in Kabbalah was Yahweh himself, deprived of the radiance of his wife, the Shekinah, and married in her absence to Lilith. (5) The myth of Sophia was used by the Gnostics as a metaphor to explain how the soul, the divine “spark” of the cosmic soul, her Mother, is “lost” in her creation — the manifest world, retaining no memory of her pleromatic home. There is hardly to be found a more graphic image of the human experience of the separation of consciousness from the source, or ground of its being:
Sometimes she mourned and grieved,
For she was left alone in darkness and the void;
Sometimes she reached a thought of the light which had left her,
And she was cheered and laughed;
Sometimes she feared;
At other times she was perplexed and astonished. (6)
So much has been lost with the passage of the centuries, and only now, in this century, can it be recovered and the fragments pieced together. The familiar Cinderella of the fairy-tale may seem far removed from this Gnostic myth of Sophia weeping in her exile from her Mother and Father in the heavenly realm. The figure of Cinderella does not immediately suggest the black Shulamite of the Song of Songs, nor does her God-mother evoke the Mother Sophia of the starry heavens or the shining radiance of the Shekinah. Yet a knowledge of mythology and history suggests that a relationship between them cannot be fortuitous. In this tale, as in those of The Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the Gnostic myth and its antecedent Sumerian and Egyptian ones shine through the images and connect the psyche receptive to their numinosity, with these mythic roots.
The imagery of light is common to the iconography of the goddess in Sumerian, Egyptian and Gnostic myths and to Cinderella as well. Bayley discovered that etymologically, the syllable ‘Cin’ connects Cinderella with Sin, the Babylonian moon god, father of the goddess Ishtar, whose symbol was the crescent moon. The word ‘Sinai’ is derived from the same root. El in Babylonian was the ‘light’ element in the sun god Bel (Marduk) and in El, the Canaanite father god whose name survives in the Hebrew Elohim. ‘Ella’, as Bayley pointed out, also comes from the Greek ‘ele’ which means shiner or giver of light. ‘Ele’ is the root of Eleusis, as also of Eleleus, one of the surnames of Apollo, the god of light, and is also present in Helios, the sun, and in Selene, the moon. (7) The word ‘Cinderella’ as a whole suggests both fire and light, cinders being an earthly analogy of the stars, the fiery sparks glowing in the blackness of the night sky. Jung’s passages on the scintillae (8) come to mind here, as does the lumen naturae of the alchemists.
Fire, light and the dazzling luminosity of the starry dimension are all images that were associated through the ages with the radiance of Wisdom which, as a fusion of love and insight or gnosis, represents the union of Queen and King, the highest feminine and masculine qualities of the soul. In the fairy-tale these are personified by Cinderella and the Prince. Cinderella’s particular quality of sustained devotion to whatever she was asked to do is stressed in every version of the story. The Prince’s capacity for insight is shown in his recognition of Cinderella, and in the tenacity and single-mindedness of his quest for his ‘true’ love.
Paradoxically, Wisdom as Light may wear the cloak or disguise of blackness, the blackness of the night sky in which the moon shines, Isis wore a black robe and it is Wisdom, “black but beautiful”, whom the bridegroom in the Song of Songs seeks out as his bride in the ancient recital of the sacred marriage rite. (see the Black Madonna of Chartres) So too did Solomon himself, for to him Wisdom was the “brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness”. (Wis. of Sol. 7:26) Wisdom could do all things, “For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it”. (Wis. of Sol. 7:29) Like the “Wise Men” or alchemists who followed the Wisdom tradition which originated in Sumer and was transmitted through Babylonian to Hebrew culture, Solomon loved her, and sought her out from his youth: “I desired to make her my spouse, and I was a lover of her beauty”. (Wis. of Sol. 8:2)
Like Solomon, the Prince in the story of Cinderella, once having seen her, is consumed with love for her and will have no other as his bride, and she is equally drawn by her love for him. The brother and sister imagery of the Song of Songs as well as the Gnostic myth of Sophia rescued by her brother, Christ, is carried through to some versions of the story which are known as “The Brother and Sister”. The imagery of light associated with the bridegroom so dramatically portrayed in the Gnostic myth is discovered in the Babylonian one where Ishtar is rescued by Uddushu-Namir, whose name means “his light shines”. (9) It appears also in the Classical myth of Eros and Psyche for there Eros has “hairs of gold that yielded out a sweet savour, his neck more white than milk, his hair hanging comely behind and before, the brightness whereof did darken the light of the lamp”. (10)
As far back as there is knowledge of myth there is the story of the mother/son, sister/brother, wife/husband pair, whose sacred marriage sustains and renews heaven and earth. Separated, they must seek each other. Together they form the image of the whole: dark and light, earth and sky, moon and sun, mother and father, sister and brother, bride and bridegroom. All these form the tapestry of human experience which is the foundation of myth, fairy-tale and religion. One without the other was once inconceivable. The Song of Songs, like the marriage incantations spoken by ‘goddess’ and ‘god’ in the temples of Sumeria and Egypt, celebrated the ecstatic union of the goddess with her bridegroom, who was at once her son, her brother and her lover, and who incarnated the life of nature, her visible creation. In Sumer, the goddess ‘descended’ to the temple, and the ritual of her union with the king ratified his rule by divine sanction. The union of the king, who personified the son-consort, with the high-priestess or queen, who personified the goddess, guaranteed the continued fertility of the earth during the coming year. The perennial story of their separation during the ‘dark’ phase of the year, and reunion at the time of the return of the earth’s fertility, is told in the myths of Ishtar and Tammuz in Babylonia, Isis and Osiris in Egypt, as well as in the later ones of Cybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis, and Psyche and Eros. Over some two thousand years, the imagery of the sacred marriage was gradually transformed and interiorised. From being a fertility rite associated with the sacred marriage, as well as the ritual sacrifice of the king or his substitute, whose death gave life to the people, it became, in the Mysteries of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the celebration of the union of the soul with the divine ground of being. The ground was personified variously by a feminine or masculine deity, depending upon the culture in which the imagery took root. (11) The darkness of the time of separation was associated with the darkness of the soul’s sorrow during the time of ‘exile’, and the time of reunion with the idea of return to the source. The sacred marriage and ritual sacrifice were both central to the Mysteries. In Cinderella they manifest as the royal marriage at the end of the story, and as the bloody amputation of the ugly sisters’ toes or heel.
In many versions, apples and honey connect Cinderella with the Song of Songs and with the temple rituals of the sacred marriage. Inanna “knelt by the sacred apple tree” in the marriage ritual of Sumer. (12) In Greece, the golden apples of the Hesperides were Hera’s gift, bestowing eternal life. In the Song of Songs there is the passage: “As the apple trees among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons”. (Song of Songs 2:3) In one version of Cinderella, an apple tree takes the place of the fairy God-mother and shakes down from its branches the beautiful dresses which Cinderella wears to the ball. Cinderella, talking to the tree in another version, says:
Little gold apple tree
With my vase of gold have I watered thee
With my spade of gold have I digged thy mould
Give me your lovely clothes I pray
And take my ugly rags away.
Honey has been associated as far back as Sumer with the sacred marriage ritual and in Crete with the gift of insight or prophecy, and the revelation of the invisible dimension behind the forms of life. (13) It is perhaps the most ancient symbol of Wisdom and Truth, belonging specifically to the rituals associated with the mysteries of creation and regeneration.
The fairy God-mother can be recognized as the Mother Goddess of the pre-Patriarchal, pre-Christian past. In relation to Gnostic myth, she personifies Wisdom herself who, as the Mother Sophia, comes to the rescue of her daughter, as Demeter comes to the rescue of Persephone. Cinderella, like the daughter Sophia, is the ‘image’ of her beautiful mother. As the Mother Sophia sends Christ, her son, to help his sister, so the fairy God-mother arranges everything so that the prince will fall in love with her ‘daughter’, the human soul, and rescue her from a life of drudgery and misery. She is variously described as Queen with a star on her brow which connects here with Ishtar and Astarte; a cow with golden horns which recalls Inanna-Ishtar and Isis-Hathor; a wise old woman; a mermaid or a sea-serpent who lives in the abyss, which evokes the Babylonian Tiamat and the Sumerian primordial serpent goddess Nammu. In Brazil she was called “Donna Labismina”. Cinderella herself is often called Mara, Maria, or Mariucella, all derived from the root mare, which means sea; and the sea whose distilled essence is the salt of Wisdom, is one of the perennial images of the soul.
Transformation is the theme of the story and the God-mother presiding over it is Sophia or Wisdom herself who, with a wave of her wand, transforms mice into snow-white horses, lizards into footmen, a pumpkin into the golden (or crystal) coach, and a rat into the coachman and, of course, Cinderella herself into a vision of beauty arrayed in dresses which reflect the radiance of the stars, moon and sun. Cinderella has to do the work of going in search of the animals and vegetable named by her God-mother, which suggests that the soul has to respond to Wisdom’s guidance by identifying the elements to be transformed; once identified and ‘brought’ before the greater insight and power of transformation personified by the God-mother, the work of transformation is accomplished in a flash, although the “twinkling of an eye” of the fairy tale may extend over a life-time in this dimension. Mice, the animals that scurry about the house in the darkness of the night suggest unconscious thoughts; lizards, unconscious instincts. Mice, as the most fertile of animals, were sacred to the great Goddess as well as to the solar gods Horus and Apollo, and were associated with the healing of disease. The lizards – serpents who slough their skins – share this lunar imagery of regeneration with the milk-white colour of the horses, but they also suggest the fiery image of the salamander, one of the alchemical symbols of transformation most prominent in fifteenth and sixteenth century treatises. The pumpkin’s golden colour suggests harvest and, in particular, the glow of the harvest moon. The conjunction of the images of gold and harvest perhaps reflect the last stage of the alchemical task of transformation, leading to the royal marriage and the union of the soul with the spirit. The chariot, fiery or golden, is a very ancient symbol which, in Kabbalistic legend, was an image of the Shekinah as the vehicle of Yahweh, and earlier still, was described by Elisha in his vision of Elijah taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. It was also an image ‘seen’ by the mystic in the course of his spiritual journey. The earliest image of the heavenly chariot appears in Bronze age Crete (the Haghia Triada sarcophagus), where the goddess drives a chariot drawn by griffons, conveying the soul of the deceased to the other world. The arduousness of the work of transformation is stressed in some versions of Cinderella more than others: for example, in the one where her step-mother throws a heap of seeds onto the ground for the girl to sort into piles. This is identical to the scene in the story of Eros and Psyche, where Psyche is given the same task by her mother-in-law, the goddess Venus, who in this context sets the harsh task which the soul has to accomplish on her journey back to the realm of the gods, and her reunion with her husband, Eros. In the Classical myth, as in the Gnostic one, the bridegroom is the son of the goddess. Doves and birds, whose association with the goddess goes back to the Neolithic era, help Cinderella to sort the seeds and also, in some versions of the story, point out to the prince that a false bride wears the slipper destined for Cinderella, by drawing his attention to the blood flowing from the injured feet of the ugly sisters.
Cinderella’s dresses, her ‘robe of glory’, are described as “blue like the sky”, woven of the stars of heaven, of moon-beams, sun-beams, or made of all the flowers of the world. Sometimes the metaphor of the sea appears and her dress is “sea-coloured” or “like the waves of the sea, or “as the sea with fishes swimming in it”, and as the “colour of sea covered with golden fishes”. Sometimes, like Isis, she is robed in jet black; sometimes her dresses shine like the sun or gold, covered in diamonds and pearls, “of splendour passing description”, and giving forth the tinkling sound of bells. In one story, Cinderella’s dress “rings like a bell as she comes downstairs”, which recalls the sistrum of the goddess Hathor and also the bells that rang out at the approach of the Shekinah. (14) But it also reminds one of the description of the robe worn by the initiate in the Gnostic poem The Hymn of the Robe of Glory: “I heard the sound of its music which it whispered as it descended”. (15)
Cinderella “lets down her hair and shakes out showers of pearls. She is clothed from head to foot with necklaces of brilliants and precious stones, and gems fall from her lips when she speaks. At times she wears a “diamond dress, or a gold dress trimmed with diamonds, or a robe of silk, thread thick with diamonds and pearls”. (16) In other versions, Cinderella’s dresses are hidden beneath the furry disguise of an animal. In the variation known as Catskin, the king tears off the furry cloak made of a thousand animal skins to reveal the shimmering dress hidden beneath it. These marvellous dresses which, in the best-known version are given to Cinderella by her God-mother, seem, as Bayley suggests, to symbolize the awakening and growth of Wisdom which clothes the soul in ever greater radiance.
“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter!” says the bridegroom in the Song of Songs. (Song of Songs 7:1) Cinderella’s shoes or slippers are described as made of crystal, or gold or blue glass, or embroidered with pearls. Sometimes they are different on each of the three nights, ending up as gold. Without her glass slipper, Cinderella would not have been recognised, and it could only fit her whose standpoint had been so transformed that it had become translucent to the light of Wisdom.
Cinderella is instructed by her God-mother to leave the palace before midnight or risk being transformed back into her former state. What could this mean? Could it be that midnight marks the interface between the dimensions of eternity and time? To fail to hold the balance between them is to risk being ‘fixed’ in one, unable to relate to or remember the other dimension of experience. To stay at the ball beyond midnight is to forget human values and human relationships, losing touch with material reality, and everyday life. Not to ask to go to the ball is to remain in bondage to material existence, without awareness of the ‘other’ place. The balance between time and eternity must be kept if the sacred marriage is to take place. The hardest task of all is to live in this dimension in the knowledge that it is also ‘the other’, yet cannot be fully experienced as such until consciousness is so transformed that it sees through the veil of appearances.
Cinderella’s ugly sisters and step-mother may also have an ancient historical association. The contrast between Cinderella and her two sisters may have a Hebrew origin, for Cinderella may be identified with the ‘true’ bride of Yahweh, and the ugly sisters with Israel and Judah, the two Hebrew states which were “unfaithful” to him, returning to the old Canaanite religious rites, and whose fearful fate, falling in bondage to Assyria, is so graphically predicted and described by the prophets in the Old Testament. But the ugly sisters also appear in Apuleius’ story of Eros and Psyche, where they play the role of the false values which intrude upon her relationship with her divine husband. In the fairy tale, their finery cannot conceal their ugliness, and their feet do not fit the slipper whatever mutilation they inflict on them.
The contrast between the two ‘mothers’ in Cinderella may reflect a Gnostic viewpoint. The two ‘mothers’ may describe the Gnostic and Catholic Christian Churches. The Gnostics, both in the early centuries when the Christian doctrine was being formulated, and in the later Middle Ages, contrasted their ‘true’ teaching with the ‘false’ teaching of the Christian Church which did not rescue the soul but prolonged her suffering and exile, keeping her in ignorance of her divine nature and the way to recover her knowledge of herself. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church was named by the Christian Fathers as the “Virgin Mother” of the faithful, and the “Bride” of Christ. “As Virgin and Mother the Church… is represented as undefiled by false doctrine and ever loving and watchful of those who come within her affectionate embrace, sanctifying them as children of God, training them on earth and so preparing them to attain to citizenship in heaven.” (17) The Church therefore assumed the imagery of the former Goddess, as well as the mantle of Wisdom which had once belonged to Sophia, the Holy Spirit — the feminine aspect of the divine who was with God “from the beginning”.
During the centuries of persecution, both in the early centuries of Christianity and later, in the Middle Ages, though claiming to be the “Mother of the Faithful”, the Catholic Church became the very antithesis of the true Mother, Wisdom, whose image was associated with the secret Gnostic Church. No-one who has studied the history of religious persecution can fail to be aware of the Church as the “Terrible Mother”, and the horror of the centuries when one’s neighbour could not be trusted for fear of betrayal to the Inquisition.
In the tale of Snow-White there is the same contrast between the ‘true’ mother who dies, and the ‘false’ mother, the wicked queen who transforms herself into an old hag, and brings Snow White the poisoned or death-bringing ‘gifts’, including the poisoned apple that sticks in her throat and causes her to fall into a death-like trance. The prince who awakens her with a kiss and restores her to life evokes the image of the Gnostic Christ who is sent to rescue his sister from her trance-like ‘sleep’ in the world.
So many elements from earlier cultures are present in this story, that it is impossible to say when and where it may have originated. One thing is certain: its importance to the psyche is shown by the universality and duration of its appeal. Cinderella tells the story of a single theme which runs from the mythology of Sumer and Egypt to the Mysteries of the Pagan world and the Wisdom literature of Judaism. It can be followed through Gnosticism and mystical Christianity to Alchemy, the Grail Legends, and the most cherished fairy tales. It was nurtured by the mystics of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. It is the story of the soul’s descent into the manifest world, her loss of memory of her divine origin, her quest for understanding of herself and her relationship with the divine source or world from which she had emanated and to which, in full knowledge of who she is, she might return. The figure of Sophia, Divine Wisdom, the Holy Spirit — mother, source and womb — is the image of the light and wisdom hidden within the soul as, with the help of her God-mother, she is changed from soot-blackened drudge into radiant bride.
The image of the soul’s journey weaves like a golden thread through mythology and literature that spans five thousand years. It first appears in Sumer, when Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, surrenders her glorious apparel at each of the seven gates on her way to the underworld kingdom of her sister, Ereshkigal, resuming them after her three-day ‘crucifixion’ in darkness as she re-ascends to the light. The soul, as Eve, is banished from the Garden of Eden and goes into exile, as does the ‘widowed’ Shekinah and the Gnostic daughter Sophia. The Cinderella of the fairy-tale personifies all these earlier mythic figures who in turn image the human soul and the predicament of the light which shines in darkness and has no knowledge of itself. As in the stories of the Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the soul awakens to the kiss of the Prince who, as the solar bridegroom, consort of the moon goddess, personifies the divine life principle and, in these stories, the highest potential of human consciousness. The ancient imagery of the sacred marriage is concealed in the relationship of the Virgin and Christ, who crowns his mother as his bride, and is developed in Alchemy, infusing the poetry and legends of the Middle Ages with the urgent beauty of the soul’s quest for Wisdom – “Notre Dame” – in whose honour the magnificent cathedrals of Europe arose. The theme pervades the Grail Legends and Dante’s great allegory of the soul’s awakening and return to God. The artists of the Renaissance, steeped in the Hermetic knowledge of Marsilio Ficino, proclaim Mary as the awakened soul seated in the midst of the garden, fragrant with the lilies and the roses which are Wisdom’s timeless symbols. Impregnated by the Divine Spirit, she has brought forth her “son”. So also, the Alchemist laboured to transform himself, as lover of Wisdom, into her son, the filius philosophorum, or filius Sophiae.
What is the cultural relevance of the story of Cinderella in the new age that is dawning? The image of the sacred marriage between Nature and Spirit, Goddess and God, has been notably absent in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and this has inflicted a deep wound on the psyche which has yet to be healed. The fairy-tale restores the image of union between the two primary archetypes and has, so to speak, ‘carried’ it for our culture until the time was ripe. The slow emergence in human consciousness of the plight of the feminine value embraces the image of the soul’s suffering and ignorance of herself, and of an earth and nature which are also suffering, and in need of rescue. Cinderella personifies these three aspects of the feminine value so long relegated to the role of servant. The ‘resurrection of this archetype has been prepared for many centuries by those who often sacrificed their lives to the transmission of the Wisdom Tradition – “black but beautiful” – so that it would not vanish into oblivion. It may even have been one of them – whether Jew, Christian or Muslim – who first imagined this fairy tale, drawing on the repository of myth inherited by the mystical tradition of all three cultures. This Wisdom Tradition taught the immanence of the divine in nature and human nature. It emphasized the need to discover the presence of the radiant ‘self’ hidden within the forms of life and the darkness of unreflecting human consciousness. They would each have recognised that Cinderella
the bright and shining one, who sits among the cinders and keeps the fire alight… is the personification of the Holy Spirit dwelling unhonoured amid the smouldering ashes of the Soul’s latent, never totally extinct, Divinity, and by patiently tending them, fanning them into flame. (18)
1. Published by Williams and Norgate, London, 1912.
2. Cinderella by Marian Roalfe Cox, The Folk-Lore Society, 1983.
3. Pistis Sophia. Compare the passage in the Song of Songs “The Watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love”. (5:7,8)
4. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Beacon Press 1958. Introduction
5. See Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, Chapter 1V. Ktav Publishing House
6. Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism: An Anthology. Collins, London 1961 p.171. Compare the words of the Naasene Hymn:
Therefore clothed in a watery form, she grieves,
toy and slave of death,
Sometimes, invested with royalty, she sees light:
Sometimes, fallen into evil, she weeps.
Sometimes she weeps, and sometimes she rejoices;
Sometimes she weeps, and sometimes she is judged;
Sometimes she is judged and sometimes she dies;
Sometimes she finds no exit, because her wandering ways
Have led to a labyrinth of evils.
7. Harold Bayley, The Lost Language of Symbolism, Vol.1. p.192
8. C. Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, p.190-192
9. M. Jastrow, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, p.142
10. From Adlington’s translation of Apuleus’ tale in The Golden Ass
11. From about 2000 BC. onwards, and the incursion of new peoples worshipping sky gods, the goddess gradually lost her ancient association with the heavens which originated in the lunar mythology of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras
12 . Inanna by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Rider & Co 1984, p.40
13. The priestesses of Apollo and Artemis, Demeter and Aphrodite were known as melissae – bees – and the chief oracular priestess at Delphi, the Pythia, was called “The Delphic Bee”
14. See Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, Chapter 1V, for the Exile of the Shekinah, and also the Talmudic saying, p.145: “The Shekinah rang before him like a bell”.
15. Trans. By G.R.S. Mead in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten
16. All descriptions are taken from Cinderella, and quoted by Bayley, Vol.1, Chapters VIII and 1X
17. E.O. James, The Cult of the Mother Goddess, p.197
18. Bayley, Vol 1, p.194-95
Originally included in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, Chapter 15. All rights reserved. No part may be altered without prior permission in writing from the author.
Re-published 1991 in Psyche’s Stories: Modern Jungian Interpretations of Fairy Tales, Vol. 1. Edited by Murray Stein and Lionel Corbett, Chiron Publications, Wilmette, Ill.