Did you know that there are more than 700 Cinderella stories? The theme of the mistreated and underestimated person who rises in the world through true love calls to some deep-seated need in us all, because people never seem to tire of variations on this story. There are versions in which Cinderella is a man (remember the Jerry Lewis movie Cinderfella?). Sometimes birds peck out the eyes of the wicked stepsisters, other endings have gentle Cinderella forgives the repentant stepsisters and offers them in marriage to two lords of the court. Cinderella is sometimes abandoned by her biological father and survives as a woodland hunter. Even many recent movies testify to our love of the archetype, from Drew Barrymore’s political strong girl Cinderella in Ever After to Julia Roberts hooker-with-heart-and-humor Cinderella in Pretty Woman.
Because Disney adapted the Charles Perrault’s seventeenth century French version with its court and carriage, ball and glass slippers, this is the one that most children know. But in the Celtic world and Native American worlds, Cinderella is less about fancy dance balls and much more in keeping with those cultures.
Both among the Ojibwe and the Iroquois nations, there is a version of Cinderella, in which the young sister is badly burned and scarred by fire, her black hair singed and raggedy. The “handsome prince” of the stories is a magical being, powerful, invisible, drawing a sledge with a rope made sometimes of the rainbow, sometimes of the Milky Way. To marry him, the girls of the tribe must be able to see him and his magical harness. This adds a component of spirituality to the stories typical of Native Nations values; see well, tell truly. Because no other girls can truly “see” the object of their desire, they make up a “vision.” It is the true vision of the Cinderella of the story which wins her true love. She sees the “prince” and his rainbow clearly. In the Native versions of the story, it is often the sister of the hero who plays “fairy godmother,” admonishing all the girls to be truthful, rewarding the cinder girl for her true vision-- not with coaches and horsemen, but with a ritual bath or baptism of complete transformation. This is also in keeping with the matriarchal wisdom archetypes of Native Nations.
There are two Irish versions of this beloved story. In the earlier version, the Cinderella character is a boy. Gaelic historian Douglas Hyde called this story the Brackett Bull. The Cinderella character is actually a diminuitive version of the early Ulster hero CuChulainn. He is Buachaill Bo Beag, the little cattle boy, (sometimes called Billy Beag). He’s a short fellow (atypical to the Celts, who were generally over six feet tall), with huge feet, able to cover great distances in a bound. His “fairy godfather” is a bull, who gives the boy his own tail as protection and talisman. His many adventures occur in multiples of three, which is the sacred Celtic number. Eventually, the cattle boy slays a dragon, wins a princess and leaves behind a giant boot. The stubborn princess will marry no prince. She’ll have only the cattle boy who owns the boot.
Such archetypes are consistent with early Irish life, in which ownership of cattle was the only measure of wealth, bulls were indeed magical (the great Irish epic the Tain bo Cuailgne is based on a war over a magical brown bull) and women were strong, stubborn, equal in power to men and perfectly capable of making their own decisions.
The later, post-Christian era version of the Irish story conflates the earlier version with a female Cinderella. There are dozens of variations. Called Fair, Brown and Trembling, it tells of three sisters who go by those names. Fair and Brown mistreat the third, Trembling.
In an unusual twist, the fairy godmother is a wise woman or druid, a left-over pagan woman of tremendous power, who sends Trembling to Mass in beautiful gowns on fine gleaming magical horses. The Prince captures her shoe as she rides (faster than the wind, of course) away from him. He wanders all over Ireland searching for her foot. The sisters hide her in the closet, but eventually she comes out.
In typical Irish fashion, all the men of Ireland now fall in love with the girl and the prince must fight for her hand, but eventually the couple are married. Now the tale begins to conflate with the earlier tale of Buachaill Bo Beag, because one of the sisters pushes Trembling into the sea, thinking that she will take Trembling’s place. But the prince figures out the subterfuge when his sword remains cold near the pretender. A sea dragon (a whale in some versions) swallows Trembling. She’s rescued by a small cattle boy, who kills the dragon on her behalf. In gratitude the boy is brought to live in the palace, where, eventually, he marries the daughter of Trembling and the Prince, thus tying together the Irish Cinderella with the Irish Cinderfella, with… what else? A marriage.