Found a glass slipper lately?
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” opens at the Orpheum in Omaha tonight.
Every child knows Cinderella was called that because she was forced to clean ashes from the hearth. But what was her given name?
Maybe it was Rhodopis.
Two thousand years ago, Greek geographer Strabo told the story of beautiful courtesan Rhodopis. While she was bathing at her Egyptian home, an eagle snatched her sandal from a servant and dropped it into the pharaoh’s lap. Believing this an omen, he searched until finding the sandal’s owner, and married her.
Strabo’s legend was based on a real Rhodopis (Greek “rosy-cheeked”), who lived in the sixth century B.C. As a Greek-born slave in Egypt, she became a famous courtesan and won her freedom.
Though Strabo’s story is one origin of Cinderella, a king marrying the owner of a lost shoe is the only common plot point. Much more was added when Cinderella’s name was Ye Xian.
In a ninth century Chinese legend, Ye Xian’s village chieftain father has two wives and a daughter by each. After both parents die, her stepmother and half-sister make Ye Xian their abused servant.
A magic fish gives Ye Xian beautiful clothes and golden slippers to wear to the New Year’s festival. When her sister recognizes her, she runs home, losing a slipper.
A king buys the lost golden slipper. Fascinated by its small size, he searches for its owner. It fits only Ye Xian’s foot. The king marries her, and the wicked stepmother is killed by a shower of fiery stones.
Ye Xian means “petal boundary” in Chinese. Her story justified the Chinese custom of foot-binding, where girls’ feet were painfully deformed to look like lotus flowers.
When the tale returned to Europe, the heroine’s feet stayed small. In 1637, Italian author Giambattista Basile wrote the first European version.
In Basile’s tale, Princess Zezolla’s widowed father marries her governess, who has six daughters of her own. The evil stepsisters steal her father’s affection and turn her into a scullery maid, renaming her Cenerentola. “Cenere” is Italian for “cinders.”
Cenerentola’s savior is a magic date tree, which gives her clothes as well as a coach and footmen to go to the king’s ball.
Frenchman Charles Perrault published the most famous version, in 1697. He was first to make the slipper glass, add the fairy godmother and turn a pumpkin into the coach.
Perrault’s story was soon translated into English, with French “Cendrillon” becoming “Cinderella.” Perrault never tells us Cinderella’s “real name” — Cinderella addresses her older stepsister as Charlotte, but no other names are revealed.
Less than a century later, real girls were named Cinderella. In the 1810 U.S. census, Cinderella Friend, born around 1775, headed a household in Bourbon County, Kentucky.
In 1850, the first census listing everyone by name, included 542 Cinderellas. The 1900 census found 826.
Social Security’s yearly baby name lists start in 1880, giving all names used five or more times. The first year Cinderella appears is 1894, when seven were born.
The movies loved Cinderella from the start. In 1920, three silent films, “Cinderella Cinders,” “A Kitchen Cinderella” and “Cinderella’s Twin,” all updating the story to modern times, appeared. In 1922, Walt Disney made a cartoon short called “Cinderella.”
That year had the most Cinderellas born since 1880 (25) and 1921 tied for second place with 1951 — the year after Disney’s full-length animated “Cinderella” came out — with 23 infant Cinderellas arriving.
Cinderella has no other name in Disney’s 1950 film. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was originally written for television in 1957, when Julie Andrews starred. A 1965 version with Lesley Ann Warren and a 1997 one with Brandy Norwood appeared; none gave Cinderella another name.
In 1997, Gail Carson Levine published the award-winning novel “Ella Enchanted,” where the Cinderella-inspired heroine is just called Ella. A film version appeared in 2004.
Disney’s 2015 non-animated film also calls Cinderella “Ella” — as does the 2013 Broadway version of the musical.
Using Ella as Cinderella’s “real name” seems obvious. Why didn’t it happen before 1997?
Ella was popular in the late 19th century, but then went out of fashion. In 1950, “Ella” would have sounded like a grandmother, not a beautiful young woman.
In 1990, Ella started to revive as a baby name. By 2004, it was again perfect for a young pretty heroine.
Of course, whether she’s called Rhodopis, Ye Xian, Zezolla or Ella, Cinderella will still be here centuries from now, reminding us impossible things are happening every day.
Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”