Pulling the Wool...

Persinette, Petrosinella & Rudaba

Fairy tales evolve from rich oral and written legacies.  Many times the story of the tale’s evolution is more interesting than the story itself.  However, for beloved character Rapunzel her fairy tale is exquisite as is the literary history behind her.

Letting Her Hair Down
The current, popular version of Rapunzel is a bowdlerized retelling that once contained theft, selling of children, illicit sexual liaisons, and illegitimacy. Today, of course, it is sanitized for youngRapunzel (frontispiece)Credit: artist unknown, 1914 [public domain] ones; unfortunately, it also has none of the human failings or licentiousness of its predecessors. 

Rapunzel's saga opens with a pregnant woman craving the produce of a neighboring witch’s garden.  When her husband is caught stealing from the garden, the witch allows him to live if he will give her the child the wife carries when it arrives.  Upon the baby girl’s birth, whom the witch names Rapunzel, she sweeps in and spirits the baby away.

Rapunzel is a beautiful child with long, golden hair.  When she is twelve, the old witch locks her away from the world in a doorless tower.  As time passes the girl grows into a teenager on the cusp of womanhood.  Her hair has grown extraordinarily long, having never been cut.  Access to Rapunzel in her tower is unique in fairy tales – she sticks her head out the tower window and allows her cascading coif to drop down.  The witch climbs up Rapunzel’s tresses, using her hair as a rope.  After visiting with her or tending to her material needs, the witch descends by the same method. [In a variant version, Rapunzel’s captor can levitate, and the Rapunzel (1909)Credit: unknown artist [public domain]famous “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair . . . ” is not uttered.]

Rapunzel, alone in her tower, sings for diversion.  One day a prince happens by, hears her singing, and responds to the source.  He finds her trapped in the doorless tower.  Without making his presence known, he visits many more times, listening to her enchanting singing.  A yen for her develops.  One day, the prince finally spies the witch calling out the command for Rapunzel to lower her hair.  On his next visit, he does the same.  She lets down her hair, and he climbs up.  The prince becomes a frequent, but surreptitious visitor; if the witch catches him around the tower he will surely be killed.

Rapunzel and the prince devise a plan of escape.  On each visit (which he makes at night to avoid detection by the witch) he brings a piece of silk which Rapunzel fashions into a rope.  One day, however, when pulling up the old witch, Rapunzel complains about how much heavier the witch is than her prince.  At that point, the witch realizes the tower has had an unwelcome visitor.  She hacks off Rapunzel’s long tresses, tosses her out of the tower, and leaves her to fend for herself in the wilderness.

The prince, on his next routine visit, calls out from below the tower.  The witch had tacked Rapunzel’s long braids to the tower’s sill, and she lowered them.  The prince climbed up but met the old witch instead of his beloved.  She tells him Rapunzel is banished and he’ll never see her again.  In despair, he throws himself out the tower window.  He falls into the thorns below where he is blinded.  He stumbles off into the wilderness, maimed and alone.

The prince wanders the wasteland for months until one day he hears the familiar voice of Rapunzel.  She is fetching water and singing as she does it.  He tracks her down, and they embrace.  Her tears of joy fall on his face and eyes, and his sight is restored. He takes Rapunzel to his castle; they marry, and live happily ever after.


St. Barbara, Rudaba, and Petrosinella
Rapunzel originated in a French tale, Persinette.  It was written by a French noblewoman of letters, Catherine-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1654-1724).  This was an extraordinary woman of her time, an adventuress, one vested heavily in the arts and literary circles of the late 17th century.  She was an advocate of women’s sexual freedom, and she had many lovers until finally convincing a much younger man to marry her (the marriage was annulled by her influential family and the man’s father when it was discovered).

She was born and raised a Protestant.  France, however, was solidifying Catholicism as the religion of state, and when the high-born Catherine-Rose converted in 1686, she was awarded an annual pension of 1000 écus (about $30,000) by King Louis XIV.  She wrote several “histoires secrètes”, a popular format of “historic” novel that focused on the “secret” lives (usually sexual or filled with intrigues) of their subjects (e.g., Secret History of Henry IV, King of Castille in 1695).

Her flighty life and flagrant flouting of social norms, however, led to much gossip and scandalous rumor-mongering about her.  In 1697, the king forced her to retire to an abbey (when she was 43)St. Barbara (in her tower; oil, 1438)Credit: public domain to stop the scandalizing.  Her pension was threatened if she did not comply; she went to live quietly in a Benedictine abbey.  It was there she wrote her memoirs.  And, it was in this abbey that she wrote a little fairy tale, Persinette.

The story is original to Catherine-Rose, although as a highly literate woman she would have been familiar with three women that played a role in developing her heroine.  The first was a woman named Barbara who died about 200 AD. 

Barbara was the daughter of a pagan.  Her father, to protect her beauty and virginity kept her guarded in a tower.  She managed to convert to Christianity.  When her father learned of this outrage, he dragged her off to a Roman prefect who ordered that she be tortured and beheaded.  Her father executed her himself, but on his way home from that task a sudden storm arose.  He was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes on the spot.  She was later made a saint, and she was popular in the Middle Ages.  Her name was invoked by frightened people during thunderstorms. [Barbara’s feast day was removed from the church calendar in 1969 in a great “housecleaning” by the Catholic Church.]. 

Another spiritual predecessor of Persinette would likely be Rudaba, a mythic woman of Persia.  She featured in a 10th-Century Persian epic, Shahnama.  Her father was Babylonian, and the events of her story occurred in Kabul (now in modern-day Afghanistan).   Her physical description in the Shahnama is poetic and brilliant in its imagery:

About her silvern shoulders two musky black tresses curl, encircling them with their ends as though they were links in a chair.

Her mouth resembles a pomegranate blossom, her lips are cherries and her silver bosom curves out into breasts like pomegranates.

Her eyes are like the narcissus in the garden and her lashes draw their blackness from the raven's wing.

Her eyebrows are modeled on the bows of Teraz powdered with fine bark and elegantly musk tinted.

If you seek a brilliant moon, it is her face; if you long for the perfume of musk, it lingers in her tresses.

From top to toe she is Paradise gilded; all radiance, harmony, and delectation.

Rudaba, from this description, must have been a precious jewel of femininity; pomegranates were considered the fruit d’amour (and likely the mythical “apple” consumed from the Tree of Knowledge presented by Eve).  The musks and cherries and silver mentioned were fineries not available to the commoner. 

This woman was built from heady stuff, and although she was protected in a palace by a watchful father and surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, she was sought by a man named Zal. He had heard of her great beauty and traveled to her palace. 

Rudaba was not under such heavy guard as St. Barbara; she consulted her ladies-in-waiting and asked their advice about this stranger at the palace wall.  They all seemed to feel he was worthy of her, so she unfurled her long hair, and he climbed up it.  They sat on the palace roof, and talked without a chaperone.  This was unacceptable behavior and scandalous. 

Zal was smitten with her, of course, and he consulted his advisers about Rudaba.  They advised he speak with his father first.  Zal’s father did not approve since Rudaba’s family was Babylonian and Zal’s family were of another ethnic group.  Zal reminded his father of a promise he had made to deny his son nothing.  The father consented for astrologers to divine whether a marriage between Zal and Rudaba would prosper.  Finally, he was told a son would result from the union of Zal and Rudaba; thus, his blessing was bestowed.

Rūdāba (composite)Credit: public domain

Zal and Rudaba married in Kabul where they had met.  She was soon pregnant.  Her labor was agonizing; the baby (named Rostam) was huge, and Rudaba was near death.  Zal cast a magic feather into a fire, and a mystical image appeared that described to him how to do a caesarean section.  Thus, he saved the life of Rudaba and the baby.  The boy went on to become one of Persia’s greatest heroic icons

Finally, Giovan Battista Basile (the same Italian who originated the more graphic Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories) also featured Petrosinella, a presage to Rapunzel, in 1634.  This story tells of a pregnant woman desiring some parsley from the garden of an ogress.  In Basile’s story there is no husband – this woman is clearly pregnant, out-of-wedlock.  Having been caught stealing the luscious parsley, the pregnant woman has to promise her unborn baby to the ogress. The child is not given over until she is seven years old, however. The rest of the story follows as expected (there is a chase scene in this one with the ogress running Petrosinella to ground but then getting eaten by a wolf).  Basile describes the encounters between the prince and the maiden in the tower with the “nudge-and-a-wink” lewd language of his day.

Thus, Catherine-Rose had three cultic figures from which to form the rudiments of Persinette.

“Persinette, Persinette, Let Down Your Hair”
Catherine-Rose’s 1698 fairy tale, Persinette, is the wellspring for the story known today, albeit with more earthy details. 

The story opened with a happily married couple; the wife was pregnant.  A fairy lived nearby and had many exotic fruits and vegetables in a garden.  Among the produce was parsley (imported by the fairy from India!).  The fairy’s RapunzelCredit: public domaingarden was surrounded by high walls, but at his wife’s constant harping, the husband found a small door in the garden wall one day, and it was open.  He quickly stole a fistful of parsley and ran off with it.  His wife became covetous of the parsley. [And Catherine-Rose put in an amusing little aside here: “We had that in those days; parsley was an excellent taste.”]  He went back time and again to the fairy’s garden, and then he got caught stealing.

The deal was struck to give the fairy the baby when it arrived in exchange for all the parsley the wife could want (this was a deal made by the husband without consulting his wife). Before absconding with the baby, the fairy anointed it with magic water, thus ensuring Persinette (as she was named by the fairy) would be the most beautiful girl in the world.

The tower to which Persinette was taken, however, was not the rude stone prison of later lore.  Instead, it was tall, made of fine silver, and the apartments within were appointed with every conceivable luxury and desire.  In short, but for the fact Persinette cannot leave, it was a beautiful and sumptuous place in which to be held captive.  In a very rough translation (by this author), Persinette’s prison is described:

“. . . [She] had only to open the . . . cabinets . . . full of the finest jewels.  Her closets were beautiful, as much as those of the queens of Asia, and there was not a [style of dress] that it was [not] the first to have. She was alone in this beautiful living room, where she had nothing to be desired but company . . . ”

Time passed.  Persinette painted and played musical instruments.  The view from her tower window was spectacular.  Although the fairy flew out the window after installing Persinette in Rapunzel (singing at window)Credit: John Cowperthe tower, it later climbed her hair to gain entry.  Persinette’s hair was golden and an astounding thirty yards long.  It was done up with ribbons of all colors to conveniently keep it neat.  This was unfurled when the fairy called; it climbed up and into the tower as needed. 

Persinette sat by her window one day singing when a prince rode by and heard her.  He gamboled a bit around the tower, but then Persinette withdrew, thinking perhaps he might be a monster of some kind, a changeling.  The prince asked around the neighborhood and learned of the fairy and its ward in the tower.  He determined to get at her.  He lurked around the tower and found out the fairy’s method of ingress.  He came back that night; mimicking the fairy’s voice, Persinette let loose her hair.  He climbed up and surprised her.  He seduced her and then offered to marry her.  The overwhelmed girl agreed.  The prince and sheRapunzel (tower climb by prince)Credit: Walter Crane cavorted almost daily thereafter (always at night to avoid detection by the fairy).  Soon,  Persinette was pregnant, something the fairy noticed quickly enough.

Having failed in locking away her chastity the fairy decided to avenge Persinette’s lost virtue. Her long hair was cut off, and the fairy hooked it to the window.  The fairy spirited Persinette away to the sea, and the hapless girl was installed in a little hut made of evergreens.  The fairy left Persinette there and returned to the tower.  Persinette gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in the little evergreen hut by the sea.

Meanwhile, the fairy had not gotten revenge on the prince.  Mimicking Persinette’s singing voice the fairy lured him to the tower.  He climbed up the waiting cascade of hair only to find the fairy awaiting him. After arguing with the fairy, the prince hastily climbed out of the tower to start his search for her.  He fell, and Catherine-Rose makes it clear in the narrative that, although he could have “broken his whole body a thousand times”, he “only” lost his sight! 

Blind, he sat at the foot of the tower calling Persinette’s name to no avail. He then steeled himself and stumbled off.  He lived by whatever help he could get, and when he had no help he foraged herbs and roots.   

A few years passed, and he was continually reminded of Persinette as he rambled about the world.  Saddened by his loss, he settled beneath a tree to brood.  He then heard the familiar singing of Persinette nearby.  Her hut was close, and her children were playing outside while she sang.  They found the blind prince lying under the tree.  They called out for Persinette to come and meet him. 
Persinette’s joyful tears splashed on his afflicted eyes, and the prince’s sight was restored. Then, a curse took effect.  As the evening drew on, they wanted to eat.  The prince touched some biscuits, but they turned to stone.  Persinette poured some water, but it turned to crystal.  They went to bed hungry, but got up early the next morning to forage.  Everything around them transformed at their touch to something venomous or inedible. 

They settled in to die.  The fairy, seeing this in a vision from afar, suddenly remembered its fondness for Persinette.  The fairy rode to their place of despair in a chariot sparkling with gold andRampion (Campanula rapunculus)Credit: wiki commons jewels.  The fairy whisked them all off to the prince’s palace. 

The Brothers Grimm adapted Catherine-Rose’s tale for their first edition of folk stories.  In 1812, Rapunzel appeared.  She was named for the Rapunzel (witch climbing)Credit: Arthur Rackham (public domain)rampion (or "rapunzel") her pregnant mother bargained her away for. [Rampion (campanula rapunculus) is a species of bellflower, eaten as a vegetable in parts of Europe.].  The Grimms left the tale much as it was except that Rapunzel did not dwell in splendor in a silver tower; her tower was bleak and miserable.  She did get pregnant, however, and it was her comment about why her clothing grew too tight that drew the witch’s attention to her condition.  And in the Grimms’ version Rapunzel’s hair is a paltry twenty yards long, and not thirty.

Pregnancy out-of-wedlock, though a common enough fact of life for Basile, Catherine-Rose de Caumont de La Force, and the Grimms was no longer considered an overlooked sin by the middle of the 19th century.  Thus, in later revisions the Grimms took out Rapunzel’s illicit liaisons with her prince, instead having him chastely woo her in what could be considered a “chivalric” or “romantic” way.

Reeling In
The character of Rapunzel is an icon.  Anyone hearing the phrase, “Let down your hair”, immediately understands the reference.  It is only applicable to Rapunzel and no other fairy Rapunzel (iconic tower scene)Credit: H.J. Fordtale character (awakening by a prince’s kiss, for example, features
in many tales).  Rapunzel has been satirized in films, television, and books. 

She has been featured both seriously and comically as a main or incidental character in many other forms of media.  Artistically, Rapunzel is all over the map, with a certain empowerment endowed to her by some artists.

Catherine-Rose let Persinette be a bit wayward.  The Grimms stripped her of her sexuality later (and perhaps grudgingly).  Today’s Rapunzel lacks the adventure of illicit sex, unplanned teen pregnancy, witches getting eaten by wolves, ogresses cajoling theRapunzel (web art)Credit: pluww, 2011 neighborhood busybody to uncover illicit liaisons, and one’s food turning into stones and poison when touched.   And while it no longer carries the titillation of Basile’s or Catherine-Rose’s tales, it is still a good story, one that has been, and will be, retold countless times. 


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