From Prostitute to Princess


Rhodopis (frontispiece)Credit:







Most of the truly great fairy tales have murky origins in the misty backwaters of history and myth.  Many times, however, one has the supremely good fortune of finding the antecedent to a well-loved and widespread tale.  And so, one of the world's most popular stories can be firmly anchored in ancient Egypt in the person of a Thracian female slave, concubine, and prostitute.  Her name was Rhodopis.

The Magical Far East
Ancient Persia presented the world with a truly outstanding body of Eastern literature known collectively as The Thousand and One Nights.  This library of tales is second only to the Holy Bible as the most widely distributed and read literature in history.  These stories have been re-told and re-worked for each new generation. 

Most of the stories are of Persian and Middle Eastern origin (once thought of as The Orient).  Not all the stories come from the Cradle of Civilization, however.  Some of the best known ones are retellings of stories from even more distant lands. The protagonist of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, for example, is really the story of a Chinese peasant.

The oldest stories told in The Thousand and One Nights feature a heroic sailor name Sinbad.  He stars in several classic tales, but he is not Persian. Sinbad is Egyptian.  A papyrus fragment of one of his adventures is the oldest evidence found supporting the greater antiquity of The Thousand and One Nights, and it dates from around 2000 BCE.

So, too, ancient Egypt gave the world arguably its most enduring and popular fairy tale character.  The slave girl Rhodopis has a fascinating story to tell.

Golden Sandals of Desire
Rhodopis was a slave girl in Greece who functioned as a courtesan for the noble house in which she lived in the 6th century BCE.  She was from Thrace, an ill-defined geographic area spanning parts of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey and straddling the Bosphorus (the waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean).  She was probably born into slavery in Thrace.  Another interesting thing about her is she was an acquaintance of Aesop, the fable-telling slave of antiquity.  

The name "Rhodopis" is Greek, not Egyptian, and translates roughly into "red face" (more poetically, "rosy cheeks").  This may have been nothing more than a nickname for this girl – the area of Thrace where she was from has a Balkan mountain range called the Rhodope Mountains (named for a Greek mythical figure).  The word "Rhodope" means "red" or "rusty river"; it is likely that "Rhodopis" as applied to this girl is nothing more than a variant of the mountain range name of her homeland (in the same way one might nickname a man "Tex" who was from Texas).

Some historians believe her real name was Doricah.  In any event she was a slave, sharing a household with the slave Aesop.  She was sold to another Greek household, then from thereGolden sandalsCredit: stock image removed to Naucratis in Egypt (very near the delta where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean).  Any hetaera like Rhodopis was purpose-bred, trained and educated as companions.  Although the hetaera class of slaves could be equated more closely with the Geisha of feudal Japan centuries later, they were still sexual playthings of their masters without much status.  Secondarily, the other household slaves all had seniority over Rhodopis when she arrived, and her foreign origins made her a Rhodopis (detail; 1868 oil painting)Credit: public domaintarget of abuse for the other female slaves.

Her master had given her a pair of golden (some stories say rose-colored) sandals when he discovered her great talent for dancing, and Rhodopis wore these often.  She met the Charaxus, the younger brother of the poetess Sappho (who had traveled to Naucratis on business).  He was smitten with this slave girl courtesan and procured her freedom for a huge ransom paid to her master.  She was liberated then, and chose to ply her trade on her own without this man in her life (one tradition holds Charaxus and Rhodopis married).  Rhodopis maintained her place in Naucratis after her liberation.  She hustled as a prostitute, and tithed a portion ofRhodopis (3-D, mounted artwork)Credit: pluww, 2011 her income to the temple at Delphi where reliquaries were dedicated in her name because of her generosity.

Rhodopis one day took her leisure in bathing in the river.  Her garments and golden sandals were ashore.  An eagle swept down and made off with one of her golden sandals.  She rushed from the water to stop the bird, but he flew out of sight. 

The eagle winged his way to Memphis in Egypt and dropped Rhodopis' golden sandal directly into the lap of the Pharaoh [if time lines are correct this would be Rhodopis with rosesCredit: public domainAmasis II (570 BCE – 526 BCE)].  This Pharaoh was confounded by the sandal's dropping into his lap, and presumed it was a sign from the gods.  After studying it, though, and determining it was of exquisite craftsmanship, he decided he wanted to meet the woman to whom this beautiful slipper belonged.

Pharaoh cast about the entire country, searching for the owner of the golden sandal.  When he found Rhodopis, he was enchanted by her beauty, and allegedly made her his wife, and thus the Queen of all Egypt. [Amasis II had two primary "wives" neither of whom fits any of the background of Rhodopis, but there is nothing in the story that says he could not have taken her on as a concubine].  And so, the little prostitute from Thrace became a Queen in Egypt and lived happily ever after.

The Others
The story of Rhodopis has some basis in historic fact but overall it is a fairy tale, a very charming and surprisingly non-violent one.  The descendants of Rhodopis, however, were a totally different story, and the girls in those tales range from psychotic revenge killers to abuse victims.

The earliest recorded European version of Rhodopis' story was recast in Italy in 1636.  This version tells of little Zezolla (diminutive for "Lucrezuccia").  Zezolla was apparently from a wealthy household as she had a nanny.  Zezolla hated her new stepmother, and she approached her nanny with a murder plan to kill this woman.  She and the nanny lured the stepmother into inspecting the inside of an old trunk.  Zezolla allowed the trunk's heavy lid to come cracking down on the back of the woman's neck as she peered inside, snapping her spine. 

Shortly after this murder, Zezolla convinced her father to marry the nanny (who'd assisted her in homicide). Apparently, Zezolla was fooled somewhat, because once the nanny assumed her place as the new missus of the house she brought her six daughters to live with them.  Now Zezolla had six horrible stepsisters on her hands.  They made her do all the scullery work, but mostly she cleaned the fire grates, so they gave her the nickname Cerentola ("Cinder-Cat").

In the tale, Cinder-Cat lays hold of a magic date tree (not a fairy godmother), and demands the tree to give her glorious garb to wear.  She gets decked out, and takes to cavorting in the king's pageants and dances over several days.  The king sees her and is completely taken by her beauty (not knowing she is a juvenile and a murderess); every time she leaves the festivities for the night he sends a valet out to follow her.  She always gives the valet the slip. The dialogue, when translated from the original Italian, has this king screaming at his valet, "By the souls of my ancestors, if you don't find that girl, I'll beat you with a stick and kick you in the ass as many times as you have hairs in your beard!"

The valet finally contrived a way to cling to her carriage one night as she leaves the most recent gala.  Cinder-Cat knows he's hanging on, so she orders her driver to start taking sharp curves and to speed up.  The valet gets thrown off the carriage, but Zezolla loses one of her shoes in the process, which the valet recovers and takes back to the king.  The king is now enchanted with this shoe.

It is not the delicate glass slipper of later tales, nor is it even so attractive as a sandal.  The "shoe" the valet brings to the king is called a pianelle.  It is a hideously ugly, leather platform Pianella (platform shoes of 17th century Italy)Credit: public domainranging anywhere from six inches to over a foot in height with an upper made of silk or satin.  The object was to elevate women off the nasty streets, keeping their dresses and trains from dragging in the mud and ordure (people routinely defecated in the alleys, streets, and doorways).  The pianelle Cinder-Cat wore was thirteen inches high; the king, however, treats this ugly stilt-like platform shoe as a delicate object, waxes romantic over it, and then vows to find its owner. 

Instead of going around his kingdom, he simply held another feast.  Cinder-Cat shows up as one of the guests – the king tries the pianelle on every woman there.  When he gets to Cinder-Cat, the shoe fits.  He is ecstatic.

The Nordic version of this tale has less murder but more blood.  When the king wished to make the acquaintance of the Mystery Girl (named "Ashen-puttel" in the Scandinavian version) she always got away.  So, he tried a trick to track the girl.  He spread tar all along the walkways near the palace before his guests left after his next ball; he figured he could track his mystery woman by following her tarry shoeprints.  Instead, one of her shoes gets stuck in the tar, and he's left with that relic alone. 

Now the tale takes on the more familiar search for the girl.  The king travels throughout the land.  Disappointment after disappointment finally leads him to the home of Ashen-puttel.  The Cinderalla (classic Art Noveau graphic image)Credit: public domaintwo stepsisters want to try on the slipper first.  The first stepsister finds her big toe won't let the slipper fit comfortably – her mother tells her to cut it off.  The girl does, puts on the shoe, and rides off with the king.  En route the king is prompted to look at her foot, sees the blood running out of the shoe, and returns to Ashen-puttel's house.  The second sister tries on the slipper, but her heel is too big.  The mother tells her to slice some off, and the girl cuts off a huge hunk of her foot to fit into the slipper.  She, too, rides off, but the king again spots blood overflowing the shoe.  Finally, he goes back, Ashen-puttel tries on the slipper, and they all lived happily ever after (except for the two stepsisters who had maimed themselves with crippling injuries).   

It is this latter version that the French author Charles Perrault used in 1697 to bring Cinderella to the masses.  The Brothers Grimm adapted the tale as well, and the blood and murder were later removed so that what is left is a shell of a story: no slavery, no prostitution, no murder, no foul cursing at valets by kings, and no foot maiming.  Rhodopis was subverted and distorted into the squeaky-clean virginal Cinderella the world knows and loves today.  The Egyptian slave girl was more intriguing. 


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