Last month, we examined several variations on Cinderella, including the Egyptian tale Rhodopis; the Chinese fable Ye Xian; and the German Aschenputtel. This month, we’ll offer examples of how a modern author might create a Pagan/polytheist-friendly version of this timeless story.
The Key Elements of a Pagan Cinderella
A retelling or reimagining of Cinderella that falls firmly within the sphere of Pagan literature requires three elements.
1) Polytheism and/or Animism — the spiritual system of Cinderella’s society or family should (obviously) not be monotheistic. A story featuring a devoutly Lutheran or Muslim Cinderella character would certainly be interesting, but doesn’t fit our most basic requirement. So maybe your story is set among the pre-conquest Mexica (Aztec) or the pre-Christian Celts of Ireland; or it might be a modern tale, with a title character who is third-generation Wiccan or Heathen.
Or, perhaps your character hails from an animist society. While Deities are honored, it is the ancestors and spirits of the landscape who take precedence in devotion. The spirit of an ancient oak tree that has been protected for generations, for instance, or a great-great-grandparent whose grave has been faithfully tended.
Which leads to our second point ….
2) Act/s of Devotion — whoever your Cinderella character is, she/he/they need to do something to attract the attention of Greater Powers. Depending on where and when your story set, these acts of devotion — and the virtuous characteristics attached to them — will vary. Do the Greater Powers require daily offerings of honey and milk, or is a bull sacrificed every Solstice the norm? Do the Greater Powers expect people to keep to their oaths and offer compassion to strangers, or are cunning and bravery in battle to be celebrated? Do they admire and reward cleverness and quick thinking? What about justice and mercy? Whatever and whichever you choose, your Cinderella character should exemplify these qualities, and so justifiably earn their reward.
3) The Fairy Godmother — in most versions of Cinderella, the character who comes to her aid is supernatural, either an ancestral spirit or a fae or even a Deity. (There are versions, typically modern ones, in which the Fairy Godmother is not magical at all, or ambiguous in nature.) In a Pagan version of the story, that supernatural element should ideally be maintained, though I’ll offer a suggestion below for a not-so-obviously-supernatural version.
So who and what is your Fairy Godmother character? Is she/he/they literally a fae? If so, why are they helping Cinderella? (See Point Two above.) Are there conditions for their aid? What happens if those conditions are violated? Or is the Fairy Godmother an ancestral spirit, acting out of love or a desire to further the family’s good fortune? Or is the Fairy Godmother a Deity? Perhaps this Deity is concerned for the fate of the realm, and recognizes a good marriage partner/ruler in Cinderella? Or maybe this isn’t about attending a ball and winning a prince, but in actually saving the people and land from conquest; whose to say that the Morrigan or Mars Pater would not appear to a skilled but poor swordswoman and give her exactly what she needs to save the day?
Retellings and Reimaginings
And that’s it. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But those three elements are the most basic, the most foundational. An author can build upon these, making the story as big and complex as they want — but, without these three, it’s not a Pagan story.
Now, suppose you have the opportunity to write a Pagan/polytheist version of Cinderella. It has to be short, and you’re on a deadline. One possibility is to retell an extant tale — in this case, Rhodopis. Take the very few sentences that we have courtesy of Strabo and Aelian, and expand them into a coherent, exciting narrative. You already have your setting (ancient Egypt, specifically the city of Naukratis); your leading lady (Rhodopis, a Greek slave); your fairy godmother (an eagle, or other bird); and your prince (no less than Pharaoh himself). You just need to flesh it out a bit by making Rhodopis worthy of her happily ever after, giving the eagle a supernatural background, and making the Pharaoh worthy of his happily ever after, too.
You can do just that in fewer than three thousand words. As a slave, Rhodopis has few, if any, rights. Let’s say that she was treated well by her original owner, but then he married a cruel woman, and then died, leaving Rhodopis to suffer alone. Despite this — or perhaps because she understands suffering so well — she is kind to others. Most notably, to a wandering beggar with a single falcon feather around his neck; a memento from his military days. She regularly feeds him, and even offers him shelter, despite her owner’s warnings not to do so. Then, one day, when she is taking the opportunity to bathe while washing the clothes, a falcon swoops down and makes off with one of her slippers. Miles and miles and miles away, Pharaoh is meeting with his advisors, administering justice and overseeing the land and people in accordance with the principles of ma’at. When the falcon drops the sandal in his lap, Pharaoh immediately recognizes this to be an act of the Gods, most notably of Ra, God of the sun and of kings. He sets out to find the slipper’s owner, but does so in disguise; eventually — after many trials and adventures — he traces her to the port city of Naukratis. And Rhodopis once again proves her worth by caring for this stranger, offering him food and shelter against the orders of her cruel mistress. Pharaoh recognizes in Rhodopis a true wife, someone who can stand at his side and aid him as he seeks to rule Egypt wisely and well. And they sail off down the Nile together, a falcon leading the way, to live happily ever after.
There you have it: a Pagan iteration of Cinderella based on one of the oldest fairy tales in the world, grounded in the ideals of an ancient society, but retold for a modern audience.
Now, let’s suppose that you have a bit for freedom in terms of deadline and word length. You really want to dig into the story, expand it out, use it to explore ideas of gender and power and religious freedom. And you want to do so in a Pagan/polytheist context. Cool. Let’s look at Aschenputtel, then.
The original Grimm version has lots to offer: ancient magical chants passed from mother to daughter, a spirit-inhabited tree, and flocks of avian familiars. Let’s make this version an alternate history/fantasy, and flip around the characters’ genders to make the messages of the story really stand out. Set the story in a traditionally matriarchal society that has recently grown very conservative and reactionary; a cult of the Sun Goddess has come into power and is stamping out any religious or magical traditions that are not seen as “correct” — such as worshipping other Deities, befriending animal spirits, working with the elements, or teaching magic to men.
Our main character (let’s call him Ash) is the only son of a wealthy and talented artisan who made a point of training him in the same magic that she used to create her wonderful, feathery works of art. When she dies, he comes into the guardianship of his aunt, who follows the teachings of the cult of the Sun Goddess. She doesn’t like the fact that he can read, let alone employ the ancient chants to summon birds and speak to the wind. His life becomes one of misery and servitude. He takes comfort in his few friends (including other men with secret magic) and in visiting his mother’s grave, where a tree has started to grow, talking to the birds and the wind. It is there that he makes the acquaintance of a young woman (unbeknownst to him, the royal heiress, visiting the grave of a beloved family member). The princess absolutely despises the cult of the Sun Goddess, recognizing the pain and horrors that it is inflicting on the people; but she doesn’t possess the political clout to do anything.
Years pass. Ash grows up, keeping his magic secret. But other men, and some women, are resisting the Queen’s oppressive edicts and the influence of the cult of the Sun Goddess; including some of his friends. When a magical assassination of the Queen is thwarted, and the would-be assassins are captured, a grand ball is announced; and the highlight of the ball will be the execution of the rebels.
Of course, Ash has to get into the ball to save his friends. And, of course, he calls on the spirit of his mother, and his avian familiars, and the wind itself to help. And, of course, the princess recognizes Ash and he recognizes her and they realize that they are in love and that this is their best chance to finally confront the cult of the Sun Goddess. Cue dramatic confrontation with stirring orchestral arrangement, lots and lots of birds, a couple of tornadoes, and a narrow escape. The Queen and the cult of the Sun Goddess remain, but with their power and authority seriously weakened. Ash and the princess fly off and find sanctuary, from which they can continue their rebellion. And the birds wing away in every direction, carrying word of their love and bravery to inspire the people.
Voila. A Pagan/polytheist-friendly version of Cinderella that highlights issues of gender oppression and religious discrimination, while drawing upon elements of the well-known Grimms’ fairy tale such as elemental magic and ancestor veneration.
How about one more suggestion? I noted above that the Fairy Godmother character is not always supernatural, but sometimes more ambiguous. Let’s suppose that your story is set in the modern world, and your main character is a trans teenager who is also a third or even fourth generation Wiccan. The character’s trans-ness is not the issue, nor is their spiritual tradition; both are accepted by their classmates and teachers. The issue is one of economics. The end of year senior prom is fast approaching and El (let’s call them that, just because) desperately wants to attend, but does not have the resources to do so.
This is where El’s coven comes in. Here, the Fairy Godmother is not one supernatural character, but a magical community coming together to help one of their own. They sew up fancy clothes, do El’s hair and make-up, arrange for a nice car. They hold a blessing beforehand and cast a luck spell. Everything they can possibly do to make the evening special. And El has a wonderful time. They even discover a few things about their classmates that they didn’t know (such as the notorious mean girl is deeply in pain, and the jock is a secret nerd, and so on). It’s a night to remember, and El will always love their covenmates for making their dream come true.
Cinderella is one of the oldest fairy tales in the world, with antecedents dating back to ancient Egypt and Tang Dynasty China. While the story has been embraced by monotheist and secular storytellers, it does not belong to them alone. It belongs to everyone — including Pagan/polytheist authors and audiences.
So go. Write your own version. Read your own version. Make the story your own.
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]