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Cinderella's Garment

Cinderella, by Elenore Abbott, 1920

Extracts from :

Harold Bayley

The lost language of symbolism

An inquiry into the origin of certain letters, words,

names, fairy-tales, folklore, and mythologies



"Beauty, Truth, and Rarity,

Grace in all simplicity,

Here enclothed in cinders lie.”


Having established the probability that Cinderella contains many traces of original allegory, it is permissible to consider this theory in closer detail and to inquire into the meaning underlying Cinderella's protean changes of garment.

Her supernatural and mystical dresses seem unquestionably to symbolise the awakening, growth, and final apotheosis of Wisdom within the mind. The Ancients conceived a primeval and self-existent Mother of all Wisdom, who figures in Mythology as the Magna Mater, the Bona-Dea, the All-Mother of the Gods ; and in Romance this primal Mother appears as the fairy Queen or fairy Godmother.


Cinderella's fairy godmother or real mother is variously described as an aged woman, a beautiful queen with a star upon her brow, a cow with golden horns, a water nymph, a mermaid living in a grotto of pearl and coral, and as a sea-serpent named Labismina.

The conception of the Sea as the Great Mother of all Creation is common to ancient cosmogonies. Whether this universal belief arose because physical life was known to have originated in water, or whether the sea was symbolically employed because of the innumerable analogies between Water and Wisdom, is a point that it would be futile to discuss. It cannot, however, be questioned that from the remotest ages the Spirit of Truth or Wisdom has been typified by Water and the Sea.

In Babylonian cosmogony the Deep or Depth was regarded as a symbol of Unfathomable Wisdom. Wisdom, the Spouse of the Supreme Creator, was said to dwell in the depths of the illimitable ocean, and was termed the "Lady of the Abyss" and the "Voice of the Abyss".

Labismina, the Sea-serpent godmother of Cinderella, is evidently a corruption from "L'Abysme", the old French superlative of "Abyss". It means the profoundest depth, the primal chaos, the unfathomable and unsearchable deep, and, according to Dr Murray, "a subterraneous reservoir of waters."


Among the Egyptians, and also according to Swedenborg, Blue, which is not now a canonical colour, was the symbol of Truth. Among the Mayas Blue, being the colour of the vault of heaven, was symbolic of holiness sanctity, chastity, hence of happiness. Egyptian mummies are frequently found shrouded in a network of blue beads.

Djed Djehuty Iuef Ankh Mummy

(Thebes, Egypt c. 770–712 BC)

In order to signify their exalted and heavenly character the Gods were frequently painted blue. The term “blue-blooded" may have originated from this cause, and up to the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, those natives who offered themselves as propitiatory sacrifices to their Deity smeared their bodies with blue paint.

Two shades of Blue have always been recognised by Mysticism and Poetry ; the fair Turquoise of a cloudless sky and the transcendental Ultramarine of Lapis Lazuli. In India the pure, unsullied, elemental blue is still the unearthly colour, the colour of the mystic lotus and the languorous, long-eyed Gods.

One version of Cinderella describes her distinctive dress as “blue like the sky”; another as “of the colour of noontide sky"; another as “sea-coloured”; another as “dark blue covered with golden embroidery”; another as “ like the waves of the sea” ; another as “like the sea with fishes swimming in it"; and another as “colour of sea covered with golden fishes.”

The Goddess Isis is denominated not only "Lady of the Beginning" and “Lady of the Emerald," but also “Lady of the Turquoise,” and she invokes Osiris as the God of Turquoise and Lapis Lazuli.

"With Turquoise is thy hair twined and with Lapis Lazuli, the finest of Lapis Lazuli.

Lo ! the Lapis Lazuli is above thy hair !"

Burden of Isis

A traditional epithet for Minerva, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, was “the blue-eyed maid,” and in the story of the descent of the Sun, Kamalamitra works out his fate, spurred forward by the irresistible “blue light in the eyes of Shri.” When Shri meets her lover in this under-world, she bathes him in a flood of blue colour from her wondrous eyes, and looking towards her, Kamalamitra finds the whole world vanish in a mist of blue. The beauty of Cinderella “lights up the whole room," and, Sun-like, Cinderella "shines like the Sun.” It is, too, almost a tradition that the Princess of Fairyland shall have blue eyes and hair like a waterfall of golden Light.

Black, the hue of another of Cinderella's robes, is now the symbol of evil, but evidently it had originally a good signification. Isis was at times represented as black, and Diana, the Goddess of Light, was represented indifferently as white and black. Many of the gods and goddesses of the past have been portrayed as dual-hued — White to signify Time, and Black to denote Eternity, White for Day and Black for Night. Night, the Mother of all things, was portrayed in a starry veil, holding in her arms two children, one white, the other black. The Egyptians worshipped the Great Spirit as "Endless Time and Eternity." The colour of Krishna was blue, and his name means “Blue-black." Osiris, like Horus, was sometimes black and sometimes white.

14th century Fresco of Krishna

(Interior wall City Palace, Udaipur)

Not only was Cinderella robed sometimes from head to foot in blacky but it is an almost universal feature of the story that she sits by the stove and blackens her face with soot or ashes. Similarly in masculine versions, Cendrillon ["cendres" means "ashes" in french] is described as “black as a sweep and always by the stove". Cinderella's nickname is sometimes “sooty face" and one version relates how the Prince tears off her disguise and discovers beneath the soot a heavenly face.

“No man" says Isis “has lifted my veil” and, Isis-like Cinderella is not infrequently enveiled in mist. When hard pressed she flees exclaiming : “The mist is behind me, the mist is before me, God's sun is above me". At another time it is : “Mist behind, nobody sees whence I come” and all that the Prince sees when pursuing her is "something like the long beam of a shooting star through dense mist."

Sometimes she exclaims : "Light before, behind me dark, Whither I ride no man shall mark".

At others she cries out pleadingly : "Darkness behind me, light on my way. Carry me, carry me, home to-day.” When pursued by undesirables she flings over her shoulder a white veil woven of mist, rendering herself invisible, and occasionally she thwarts her pursuers by throwing balls or bags of mist and by scattering handfuls of pearls and jewels.

Of the riddles put to the prince by the Slav Maid with the golden hair, one is : "Fire cannot light me, brush cannot sweep me, no painter can paint me, no hiding-place secure me". The lover correctly answers, “Sunshine". The maid then puts him another riddle : “I existed before the creation of Adam. l am always changing in succession the two colours of my dress. Thousands of years have gone by, but I have remained unaltered both in colour and form". “Why, says the Prince, you must be "Time", including day and night."

This is admittedly the correct answer, and, among the ancients, Time was an attribute and aspect of the Deity. The Persians called Him “Time without bounds", or "Boundless Time" and the Egyptians spoke of Him as “The Great Green One, Endless Time, and Eternity". The two alternative colours of the Maiden's dress are as the prince guessed, the garb of Time including day and night, day being white and night being black. Wisdom alternately veiled and unveiled, manifest and inscrutable.


Wisdom is proverbially not only an excellent jewel, but the Pearl of Great Price. The monuments of Egypt call precious stones “hard stones of Truth", and the pearl has always been a symbolic nec plus ultra by reason of the numerous analogies existing between it and Truth. The Pearl was certainly regarded as a symbol of the Soul or Spirit lying enased within the human body. “There was a time" says Plato "when we were not yet sunk into this ‘tomb', which now we bear about with us and call it 'body', bound fast to it like oyster to its shell." "There is", as Browning says, an "inmost centre in us all where Truth abides in fullness," and the pearl being spherical — a “very perfect orb of supreme loveliness” — it was for this additional reason doubtless adopted as a symbol of Perfection.

Sometimes Cinderella is called Preciosa and fairies lead her to a “golden portal" where a "gold star lights upon her brow". She asks from her Father a pearl dress without "slit or seam” : She lets down her hair and shakes out showers of pearls. She is clothed from head to foot with necklaces of brilliants and precious stones, and gems fall from her lips when she speaks. At times she wears a diamond dress or a gold dress trimmed with diamonds, or a robe of silk thread thick with diamonds and pearls.

According to The Hymn of The Robe of Glory, the vestment of the King's Son was “of gold tissue with jewels encrusted,” and its seams were fastened with “adamantine jewels” (diamonds). A description inviting comparison with Cinderella's dress of silk thread thick with diamonds and pearls is further specified as “all bespangled with sparkling splendour of colours", and as wrought “in a motley of colour". Similarly, Cinderella has a dress “of all colours" specified sometimes as “a wonderful scintillating dress,” “of splendour passing description.”

Another version graphically records the glitter of her robe as “like the curling of a stream in the sun”. But perhaps the most striking of these coincidences is the musical properties of the Robe of Glory. The 90th couplet of The Hymn reads :

"I heard the sound of its music

Which it whispered it descended.”

Similarly, Cinderella has a dress that “rings like a bell as she comes downstairs". This remarkable garment is described as covered with little bells and chains of gold. At times it is a dress “of chimes” and at others "a robe of golden bells".

These golden chimes suggest the sistrum of the Goddess Isis. The sistrum, an instrument of little golden bells, which, when shaken, made music at her Festivals, was a symbol of the Awakener. “The sistrum,” says Plutarch, “shows that the things that art must be shaken and never cease from motion, but be as it were stirred up when they slumber and are slothful."

Marble statue of Isis, found at Hadrian's Villa (117-138 CE).

The goddess holds a situla and sistrum

The penetrating sound of Roland's Horn was audible “full fifteen leagues away" ; the sound of Cinderella’s golden bells could be heard “two hundred leagues all round,” and their ceasing to ring was a sign of misfortune.

According to a Breton version of Cinderella, Cinderella's father offered her a dress “like the Stars, like the Sun, like the Light", a description that may be compared with Swedenborg's account of the raiment of the angels :

"Angels are men, and live together in society like men on earth ; they have garments, houses, and other such things, differing only from earthly things in that, being in a more perfect state, they exist in greater perfection. The garments with which angels are clothed, like all other things about them, correspond to what is in their minds; and therefore they really exist. Their garments correspond to their intelligence, and so all in the heavens are seen clothed according to their intelligence ; and because some excel others in intelligence, therefore they are more beautifully clad. The garments of the most intelligent glow like a flame or glisten like the light.”

To draw the similarity still closer, one may note that Cinderella's robe is described sometimes as “a magnificent dress of flame", at other times "like the Sun, the glitter of which people cannot at first face,” “like the Moon,” “ like the Dawn,” as “wrought of all the stars of Heaven,” “the wonder of wonders“, "woven of moonbeam" and “woven of sunbeams".

In the apotheosis of the Sun, he is usually pictured as driving his four-steeded chariot. Similarly, Cinderella is equipped with a “golden chariot ” or a "splendid chariot". But, as is more usual and appropriate, her traditional cortege is a crystal coach and four white horses.

Helios in his chariot

(relief sculpture, excavated at Troy, 1872)


Cinderella 's shoes, which are sometimes described as of "blue glass", sometimes as of gold, sometimes as "Sun shoes", sometimes as pearl-embroidered or spangled with jewels, and sometimes as "matchless". The meaning of these miraculous shoes, which are graphically described as bounding towards Cinderella’s foot "like iron to a magnet,” may perhaps be elicited from the Concordance to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. "Shoes,” says Swedenborg, correspond to “the lowest natural things,” and ‘‘the soles beautifully shod” are emblematic of the love of making oneself useful. The desire of being helpful is the keynote of Cinderella’s character and the fountain of all her good fortune.

The tale generally opens by Cinderella and her two step-sisters meeting an animal, a fairy, or an old man, who implores them for some mean service. The proud sisters, Pride and Selfishness, haughtily decline, but Cinderella, the Celestial Spirit, consents, and is rewarded by subsequent good fortune. It is a cardinal feature of the story that Cinderella gives her services for nothing and volunteers to perform all the dirty work. The labour imposed upon her, and which she always performs with alacrity, is essentially the meanest of the mean. Often it is disgusting, and, according to quite twenty-five per cent of the stories, consists of cleansing an unclean head.

An old man or a fairy — or, according to one version, the Virgin Mary — meets Cinderella and her sisters and says with a simple and unaffected directness : "Louse my bead.” The proud sisters, with a volley of abuse, decline, but Cinderella accepts the undesirable task and combs out lice and nits, which turn into pearl and jewels as they fall. It is clear that the intention of the allegory, like that of Christ washing the disciples’ feet, is that the meaner the service the greater its beauty. It is probable that the reason why the shoe was adopted as the symbol of the spirit of “let-me-do-it-for-you” was because the shoe protects its wearer and shields from dirt by taking it upon itself.

The symbolic vestures of humility under which Cinderella is occasionally draped are dresses of ass-skin, mouse-skin, cat-skin, and louse-skin, the lousing of a head being the emblem of as mean and revolting a service as one individual can perform for another. Yet, while in this lowest servitude, Cinderella has a vision of the glory that is essentially her own.

In a Hanoverian version the little heroine peeps into a room where hangs a mirror in a golden frame. This mirror reflects a lovely girl radiant in royal robes, and with a crown of gold upon her head ; yet "she does not know it is herself.” In due course she meets the prince and dons a dress “the like of which has never been seen.” After having become a Queen, she looks again into the same mirror and recognises that it was she herself that long ago

she saw there reflected. Compare with this incident the 6th couplet of The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, where the hero exclaims of his robe :

"At once as soon as I saw it,

The glory looked like my own self."

In a large and widely extended cycle of Cinderella tales the heroine is one of three daughters who, King Lear-like, are asked to express the depth of their filial affection. Cinderella, like Cordelia, makes no extravagant protestations, but in every version replies that she loves her father "like salt.” She is accordingly turned out of doors, and is not recalled until her misguided father has discovered by sad experience the value of salt.

In these stories it is invariably Salt with which Cinderella is identified, and Salt was the symbol of Wisdom. Wisdom was frequently personified holding a salt-cellar and the bestowal of Sal Sapientiae, the Salt of Wisdom, is still a formality in the Latin Church. The heavenly Sophia appears in mystical Science as sodium or salt, and her colour is yellow.

Personification of Wisdom

(Koinē Greek: Σοφία, Sophía)

Library of Celsus in Ephesus

In the Descent of the Sun Shri is said to be the very salt of the sea of beauty, inspiring in all who drank of it an insatiable thirst and an intolerable craving for the water of the blue lakes of her eyes. Christ described His followers as the salt of the earth, and it was salt that was employed by Elisha to sweeten the waters of Jericho.


It is singular that Cinderella, if not a maid-of-all-work, is generally a goose girl, or tender of geese. If a shepherdess of sheep is she who tends her innocent ideas, a gooseherd is logically she who cherishes her spirituality. The geese that are guarded by Cinderella, having the wit to recognise the beauty of their incomparable mistress, sing in chorus :

"Hiss Hiss, Hiss

What a beautiful lady is this

Just like the Moon and the Sun is she,

Some nobleman's daughter she seems to me."

Every Sunday Cinderella removes her wooden disguise and combs her hair, from which fall golden pips, and these pips are picked up by the goslings. There is a further very common and clearly symbolic feature in the story of Cinderella. When ill-treated by her stepmother, some friendly and sympathetic animal, such as a Blue Cow or a White Lamb, serves her as a confidante and good genius.

The cruel Stepmother, who may safely be identified with Giant Circumstance, orders her stepdaughter to slaughter this very thing in the world she most loves. Grievingly Cinderella does so, and from the blood of her sacrifice there spring a her beautiful dresses and her future happiness. In some versions the task imposed upon Cinderella is grain-sorting, similar to that imposed upon Psyche. The meaning of this imposition is so suggestive that Dr Frazer has entitled one of his works Psyche's Task, and has dedicated it

“to all who are engaged in Psyche's task of sorting out the seeds of good from the seeds of evil".

In his introduction to Miss Cox's collection of Cinderella tales, Mr Andrew Lang describes them as of immense antiquity, and as dating "from a period of wild fancy like that in which the more backward races are still or were yesterday.” The evidence now brought leather — and there is yet much more to be adduced — may, I am in hopes, to do something to dispel this corroding theory of “wild fancy” and to support the contention of Bacon that "under some of the ancient fictions lay couched certain mysteries".

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