Tag Archives: shoes

Cinderella BCE

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Hawk 4

In this collage I return to the oldest known Cinderella story, Rhodopis.  It comes to us from the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BCE – c. 24 CE) who heard it in Egypt.  Another account of Rhodopis has survived in Aelian’s (175 – c. 235) writings implying the Cinderella theme remained popular throughout antiquity. Interestingly, the story mentions Aesop of fable fame who lived 500 years earlier, indicating that the story probably originated much earlier than the 1st century CE. Aesop used stories featuring animals to teach lessons in morality; from her very beginning, Cinderella is doubly linked with the animal world.

In this version Rhodopis is a slave girl who is teased unmercifully by the other servant girls for her fair complexion.  After her master gives her a pair of rose-gilded slippers, they dislike her even more.  At the next feast day they give her so many chores she cannot attend the celebration.  As she washes clothes in the Nile, her slippers get wet and she puts them on the bank to dry. The god Horus swoops down in his falcon form, flies off with her sandal, and drops it in the Pharaoh’s lap.  He goes in search of the owner and you know the rest of the story!

I’m struck by how very old this story is and how long it retained the shoes and the bird as part of its bones. In my last post I mentioned the symbolism of ownership and possession inherent in the shoes. Years ago, I moved to Saudi Arabia where I lived for sixteen years.  One of the first things I learned was not to ever point the soles of my shoes at someone.  It is considered an insult.  I always thought it was because shoes touched the dirt and were unclean.  I see now that it might imply ownership.  In a part of the world where slavery existed officially until very recently and still continues unofficially in some households, I understand how this might indeed be a grave offense.  It also explains why shoes are left at the door of the mosques (and in other countries and faiths, the temples).  The holy places belong to God and no human can possess them or claim ownership.

Of all the places in the world where one might need shoes, the desert takes the cake.  Given the heat, the stones, the difficulty of walking in sand, a shoe offers freedom of movement and the ability to travel long distances.  Freedom and travel are hardly synonymous with possession and ownership, in fact they seem opposed.  Like many seeming opposites, they simply occupy different ends of a spectrum.  Or perhaps they are mirror images of each other.  Maybe the point of them, in this story, is to teach that two things can be true at the same time. Or that one thing can simultaneously be true and not true …

In my collage there is only the god Horus, the sandal, the sky and the desert.  I wanted to capture a tiny bit of the majesty and terror and beauty of this stark realm.  The collage represents a moment of suspension, of transition and transformation.  In a moment the shoe will drop into Pharaoh’s lap and everyone’s life will change.

The collage recalls a passage in my novel Magdalene A.D. in which Mary Magdalene, the protagonist, has been stung by scorpions.  Lying in a fever, near death, she dreams three dreams.  In the second dream she falls through the sky like the sandal in my collage.  In the third, she dreams of flying over the desert in the shape of a sacred vulture.  These images also recall my vision quest in the Mojave, during which I spent three days and nights in the desert in the company of a Joshua tree.

I feel deeply satisfied with this image (though the blue of the sky didn’t scan very well because I used a metallic electric-blue paper that was really hard to work with).  It seems a far cry from all the busyness of the story and its complex overlay of worldly socio-economic concerns, yet somehow Cinderella brought me to a place of immense solitude and hushed expectancy.  Cinderella consistently retains its ties to the spirit world – whichever of the many versions one reads there is always some mystical connection made by an animal, plant or ancestor that connects the feminine to the divine.   Perhaps this is the true meaning of the story.   Buried in a midden of lust, ambition, greed and cruelty the heart of the world still beats for us, still offers connection.

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Those Bloody Shoes

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Those Bloody Shoes 3I must confess the reason I pushed for the Grimm version of Cinderella was the bloody shoes.  Cinderella’s slipper differentiates it from all other “rags to riches” stories.  It’s importance is heightened in the Grimm version by the dreadful acts of the two step-sisters as they actually slice off parts of their body in order to cram their feet into those shoes.

Shoes are fascinating symbols in themselves.  They represent ownership.  In ancient times the Irish sealed a real estate deal by taking off their shoes and handing them to the buyer.  New land was claimed by setting ones shoes on the property.  In Cinderella, the Prince was setting out to claim ownership of Cinderella, but he needed both shoes to do so.  On the other hand Cinderella was claiming the palace as her own by leaving a shoe there.  The missing slipper also underscores Cinderella’s ambiguity in the household.   She is the rightful heir of her father’s estate, but cannot claim her birthright.

Shoes are also sexual in nature.  Think of the vaguely phallic shape of the foot  slipping snugly into a well-fitting shoe and you get the idea.  Hence, the shoe fetish.  High heels and the outlawed art of foot-binding are both examples of the perception of the foot as a sexual  symbol.  Both involve suffering pain and physical humiliation.  The self-mutilation of the step-sisters is shocking not because it presents us with an alien idea, but because we so easily understand it.  Consider that some women pay thousands of dollars for a pair of shoes.  This story speaks directly to the desperation inherent in the competition for attention from powerful men and women.  The shoes send a sexual  message of availability.  It’s why they’re called “F***- me-shoes.”

Cinderella, like many stories starring a maiden, contains coded warnings, comments or instructions for young women.  Whenever you find young women and blood together in a story it refers in some way to menstruation and/or the breaking of the hymen.  Blood is one of humanity’s most potent  and complicated symbols because it stands for both death and life.  It is a sacred fluid full of spiritual and magical abilities; Odysseus uses it to speak to the dead, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground to the Lord.  In our story the birds speak for the blood.

Oaths sworn in blood are considered binding for all time.  The step-sisters shed their blood to seal a falsehood.  The consequences are bound to be dire and they are.

The bloody shoes may presage the tearing of Cinderella’s hymen once the Prince takes possession of her.   Yet the tearing is a necessary precursor to both pleasure and reproduction.  The blood in this story represents lifeblood, women’s blood.  Perhaps, that’s why the step-sisters are blinded rather than killed in punishment for their cruelty and deception.

Because of the blood, I wanted to make my collage red.  The red on red on red motive symbolizes the layers of meaning inherent in red blood and in the color red itself.  It is difficult to see into them, just as it’s difficult to untangle the various disparate yet connected strands of love, property, individualism, family, truth and lies that make up the tapestry of this story.  The shoes are bleeding for all the literal and metaphoric reasons stated above. I set them in a border of flowers because this is a maiden story.  It speaks of women’s mysteries and women’s doings and women’s solutions.

Cinderella’s Devotion

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Cinderella's Devotion

Cinderella’s Devotion

What are the positive aspects of the story?

   One of the most positive aspects of the story is how Cinderella’s love and devotion to her mother never changes. Her mother had told her that if she remains good and pious that God would take care of her. I also like the idea that her mother’s spirit is alive in the Hazel nut tree. The white bird acts as her mother’s helper. Praying at the tree makes Cinderella feel safe and understood

   When she is given a ball gown of silver and gold Cinderella puts it on and attends the ball. I think that every young girl thinks it would be wonderful to have the most beautiful gown at the festival. This part of the story is dreamy and fun to entertain. When Cinderella arrives at the ball she looks so beautiful that even her family doesn’t recognize her. The Prince notices her and sweeps her off her feet. He exclaims that “she is my dance partner” to all other suitors. The story suggests that at first he may have been attracted to Cinderella because of her beauty but as he gets to know her he falls in love with her. It is a real love story. We all want to find a Prince Charming who will think we are the prettiest woman at the ball. Who would search for us and want to marry us even if we are the scullery maid who sleeps among the ashes.

    It bothered me that Cinderella’s father never came to her aid. I understand that the step mother has colored his perception of Cinderella. At one point in the story the father describes Cinderella as deformed. Even so, I still found it unbelievable that he was ambivalent about her circumstances. In my readings of variations of the story there is one that suggests that her father wasn’t her biological father. Cinderella is her mother’s child. This makes more sense to me and explains why Cinderella didn’t have a living advocate.

    It wasn’t unusual a couple of hundred years ago for families to have step children or step parents, or half brothers and sisters etc. Many men and women died young. In fact, women died in child birth leaving a father with children to care for. Since the majority of families worked on farms this would be especially difficult. So men remarried and often they married the woman hired to care for their motherless children. I know that is something that happened in my family. My great-great grandfather had a son to care for after his first wife died. He hired a young woman to take care of his son. After several years he married her and they had my great grandmother.

I also wondered why Cinderella always runs away from Prince Charming. In the Disney version it’s because the Fairy Godmother told her to be home by mid-night when the magical spell stopped working. But in our story it doesn’t say why she ran away. My guess is Cinderella was afraid that if the Prince knew about her humble circumstances he would not want her. Plus, she didn’t know what her “parents” would do if they found out that she had gone to the Ball. It wasn’t until the Prince insists she try on the slipper that she realizes its okay for her to reveal herself.

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