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In the present article we are going to unite, through fire, two stories separated in time. On the one hand, we unite the story of Cinderella, one of the most famous fairy tales in the world. On the other hand, we join the vestal virgins of Ancient Rome, very important and representative female figures of this great empire.
Cinderella is one of the oldest fairy tales in the oral tradition. It is also a tale that has been developed in very different parts of the world from Egypt, China, India and Europe. In 1893, the author MR Cox collected a total of 345 variants of this story, although it is estimated that there are currently around seven hundred versions.
In this article we will focus on Giambattista Basile’s version, Cinderella’s Cat published in Lo cunto de li cunti also known as The Pentameron, in 1634.
Giambattista tells us the story of Zezolla, the daughter of a widowed prince, who remarries another woman. The prince is jealous of the little Zezolla and the girl, in turn, feels a certain animosity towards her father’s wife. The little girl confesses to her wet nurse that she wishes she were her mother and between the two of them they devise a plan to murder this wife and carry it out.
Zezolla’s father marries the wet nurse and, to everyone’s surprise, she is accompanied by her six daughters. Soon, the third wife begins to reject Zezolla and put her daughters first. In the end, she strips Zezolla of her luxuries and makes her the housekeeper.
Such is the degradation she suffers that she loses her name and gets it changed to the nickname Cinderella Cat. This nickname is given to her because she sleeps in the kitchen, next to the fireplace among the ashes of the fire.
Zezolla’s suffering will be consoled by a fairy godmother who is born from a date she plants herself. The fairy godmother dresses her in luxurious dresses so that she can go to the palace balls. There the young woman falls in love with the King but always at every dance she runs away to her home. In one of these escapes she loses one of her shoes. The king orders that the shoe must be tried on in all the ladies of the kingdom until the owner is found. When Zezolla tries on the shoe he discovers that she is the owner and the king marries her on the spot.
Now we are going to focus on the event that is the title of this article and it is the moment when Cinderella is forced to sleep among the ashes. This fact has a great complexity because at a superficial level it means a social degradation and humiliation. It is an abuse since the young woman, at the beginning of the story, belongs to a high social status and when she is degraded she becomes the servant of her own house.
To be the servant of her own house in another time and social context was a very desirable position, because in Ancient Rome, to be in charge of the fire was a task performed by the Vestal Virgins, who belonged to a very privileged social status and was one of the highest positions a woman could ascend to.
Vestal Virgins: The priestesses of the eternal fire.
From the beginning, Rome was accompanied by the service and protection of the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were a group of priestesses whose main function was to keep Vesta’s sacred fire alive.
The pure and immaculate goddess Vesta, also known as Hestia in Greece, was the goddess of fire and the fireplace in the hearth. She gradually became the protective goddess of Rome whose flame represented the welfare of the state.
Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, was a vestal virgin as the myth of the two brothers being suckled by a she-wolf is told.
According to the texts, Aeneas was the first to select the vestals. They were chosen when they were 6 years old and they were girls who belonged to patrician families of the city. It is also mentioned that the selected girls were the most perfect. The service of a vestal in Rome lasted thirty years.
In the work Life of Plutarch we find that vestals were instituted by NumaPompilius second king of Rome in the 7th century BC.
With them, a series of vows were established that if any of them were broken, she was punished. The vows were of chastity (Vesta was a virgin) and keeping Vesta’s fire alive.
If Vesta’s fire was extinguished, it was a symbol of a bad omen for Rome.
The most important vestal was the vestalis maxima, or Virgo Maxima, as we know via Ovid and Suetonius. Its main task was to be present at the College of Pontiffs and to participate in the tasks and dialogues that took place there.
The Vestal Virgins had a high priority and prestige in society. They were respected and adored by each and every Roman citizen.
The dress of a vestal also reflected their high rank in society and at the same time their purity and chastity. The robes they wore were of the finest white linen and were adorned with a purple border.
For more than a millennium these priestesses were kept patiently guarding the Flame of Vesta. But time and the political and cultural changes of the Empire made their worship forbidden in the Christian era.
The order remained in force until 391 AD when the Emperor Theodosius decreed by law that all pagan worship and rituals in public were forbidden. After this decree the temple of Vesta was closed and the sacred Flame extinct. The Vestals who occupied the position at that time were removed from their duties and the order continued its life only in history, as a reminder of one of the greatest and most beautiful traditions of the golden age of Rome. And perhaps who knows, fate or poetic justice towards an unbelieving Emperor, a few years after the protective flame was extinguished, the Western Roman Empire fell to the barbarian tribes that invaded the peninsula.
Symbols of fire and ashes.
The element of fire is what unites these two stories separated by time. As the anthropologist James George Frazer points out, in primitive people fire and ashes were considered as one entity that drives the universe. In one of his investigations he was able to compile a series of rites that were carried out with fire, ashes and torches because they were considered beneficial for agriculture, livestock and human beings.
In ancient times, the focus publicus (public fire) used to be located in the center of cities. Its function was to replace the fire in the home when it was extinguished, because in ancient times, lighting a fire was a very difficult task.
The fire represents the warmth of the hearth, the family and as Bruno Bettelheim points out the hearth as the central part of a house symbolizes a mother.
Fire and ashes symbolize purity, another common element between vestals and ashes.
But in turn, fire and ashes have connotations of pain and affliction. The act of scattering ashes over the head as it is done on Ash Wednesday in Christian worship, is today a symbol of grief as in times past.
Homer in his Odyssey also tells how sitting in ashes is a sign of sympathy and a custom practiced by many peoples.
Finally, remember from Greek mythology the Phoenix bird associated with the sun and how it is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. When reborn, the phoenix symbolizes purification and immortality.
Basile, G. (2001). La gata cenicienta y otras fábulas de “lo cunto de li cunti”. Italia: Martorano di Cesena.
Bettelheim. B (1994) Psicoanálisis de los cuentos de hadas. Barcelona: Drakontos
Grimal, P. (1981).Diccionario de mitología romana y griega. Barcelona.: Paidos