Fairy tales, it is well known, conceal often quite sophisticated meanings for adults. We will look at one fairy tale, Cinderella, to see what light it might shine on our subject.
This story is known around the world, and may have been first written down in China in the ninth century AD, but it is probably much older, and did not necessarily originate in that country. Cinderella is the French Cendrillon, and one English version is Little Polly Flinders; in the Georgian version she is Little Rag Girl. The Norse Cinderella is named Askungen, which means “the ash child,” where ash refers to the tree of that name. Later versions, including the English one and the German one, collected by the Brothers Grimm, called “Aschenputtel,” have mistranslated the Norse word to mean a lowly kitchen maid who had to tend the fireplace ashes. The deeper meaning concerns the ash child who is the offspring of the Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, which was also an ash. This gives us a clue as to the real meaning of the tale.
Here is the story in brief. Cinderella’s mother dies and eventually her father remarries, but the stepmother and her two daughters are selfish, vain and mean to Cinderella to the point that the girl is virtually enslaved. The three women took away Cinderella’s pretty clothes and gave her an old grey bed gown. They made fun of her and called her a “proud princess.” She was forced to work in the kitchen from dawn to night and to sleep by the hearth in the cinders, hence her name, Cinderella. (This is an adaptation from the earlier Norse version. The ash tree has turned into fireplace ashes.)
A significant part of the story that wasn’t in the Walt Disney version involves more references to trees. The father, going to town one day, asked the girls what they wanted from the fair. The two step sisters wanted pretty cloths and jewels, but Cinderella asked for a hazel twig. When he returned home, she took the twig he obtained for her to her mother’s grave and planted the branch on it. She wept so much, her tears fell down on the tree and watered it. Soon it grew into a stately tree which Cinderella would sit beneath as often as she could. A little white bird always sat on a limb of the tree, and if Cinderella ever wished for anything, the bird created it and threw it down to her. We pause here to note that fairy tales aren’t always logical (although cartoon movies about them have to be); the Cinderella story has a meaning beyond being a psychological healing-story about sibling rivalry.
Now the King gave an order that there be a festival that would last three days. Its purpose was to allow his son the prince to see all the young girls in the country, and to choose one as his bride. Her stepsisters would be going, of course, but the wicked stepmother would not allow Cinderella to go, saying she was far too dirty to go, and besides, she had no suitable clothes or shoes to wear. So the stepmother takes her two daughters to the festival, and leaves Cinderella behind.
There are many different versions of the story from this point, the most familiar (the French version due to Perrault) being that Cinderella’s godmother changes a pumpkin into a fine carriage, a plump rat into the coachman, and six lizards into horses. She goes to the ball (in this version), the handsome prince falls in love with her, but she rushes off, leaving only her slipper behind. Eventually the prince finds her, they marry and live happily ever after. However, there are older versions, and the following is taken from the Brothers Grimm; it is a lesser-known, but more instructive, version.
The stepmother promises Cinderella she can go to the festival if she can pick a dish of lentils out of the fireplace ashes that the stepmother has thrown there – she has two hours to do so, a seemingly impossible task. However, Cinderella goes out into the garden, and calls to “You tame pigeons, you turtledoves, and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick ‘The good into the pot, The bad into the crop.’” The birds come in and alight in the ashes. Within only one hour, they have gathered all the good grains back into the dish with their beaks. But now the evil stepmother has changed her mind, and wants Cinderella to pick out twice as many lentils in only half the time. Once again, she summons the birds, who are much faster now, and finish the job in only a half hour.
Again, the stepmother says this just isn’t going to happen: Cinderella has no fit clothes, she can’t dance, and she would surely embarrass them, whereupon she, her father and her two daughters leave for the festival without Cinderella.
But Cinderella goes out to her mother’s grave underneath the hazel tree, and bids the bird drop down a beautiful dress and slippers, and she hurries off to the festival. The prince spies her, and wishes to dance with her all evening. There is no time limit before any enchantment ends, but she does rush off before the prince can find out where she lives. Defying logic—which is perfectly alright for fairy tales, which are not about logical things—she jumps into the pigeon house in her back yard. The prince sees her, and waits for her father to get home. The father hews down the pigeon house with an axe, but no one is there. When the family goes in the house, there is Cinderella lying in her dirty clothes among the ashes.
On the second day of the festival, similar events transpire. Cinderella goes to the hazel tree, and the bird casts down an even more beautiful dress, and again she dances with the prince until evening. She escapes him again, and this time jumps into a pear tree in her garden, laden with pears, and disappears. When the father gets home, he hews down the pear tree with his axe, but no one is in it. Cinderella is again found inside as she was before. On the third day, the bird throws down a beautiful golden dress and slippers; at the festival she is so beautiful everyone is speechless. Again she dances with the prince until evening, then makes her escape. But this time, the prince has prepared a ruse, and has covered the entire staircase with pitch, and when Cinderella runs down, one of her slippers remains stuck. The prince vows that he will marry whoever the golden slipper fits, and in the morning, sets out to the father’s house. The first stepsister takes the shoe into her room to put it on, but it’s too small. Her mother gives her a knife and tells her to cut off her toe so the shoe will fit. She does so, and the shoe now fits. The prince can’t see the difference (this story’s not about him, after all), so he rides off with the stepsister.
But they must pass close by the grave, and on the hazel tree sat two pigeons. The birds sing that there is blood in the shoe, the prince sees that he has been fooled, and returns to the house. The same thing happens with the second sister, who cuts off part of her heel with the knife. They again return and he demands to see Cinderella, who tries on the slipper, which fits perfectly. His eyes become unclouded, and he finally recognizes his true love. The step mother and her daughters are angry, but there is nothing they can do any longer against Cinderella and the prince, who ride away from the house. On their way, two white doves leave the hazel tree and alight on Cinderella’s shoulders. At the wedding feast, the two sisters come, but the doves peck out their eyes, and they are blind for the rest of their days for being false and wicked.
In the main story, we could not see Cinderella nor the higher spiritual realms she represented; we are blind to these things in our mundane state. But by the end of the story, the step-sisters, the mundane, materialistic point of view, themselves can’t see anything; they are now blind, but we are no longer. And so the story ends.
We can see that fairy tales, in their true, pre-Hollywood versions, aren’t children’s stories; many of them, like Cinderella, are stories with inner or symbolic meanings. Such stories sometimes have many possible meanings, as all symbols do, but here we will concentrate on what we might learn about Self and the nature of the World.
Cinderella represents the human soul which has lost touch with its innermost aspects, and is adrift in a material, burned out world, represented by the ashes, and the grey, dingy clothes she must wear. The theme is separation; her mother represented a living, inner connection which is lost upon her death. In other stories, this loss is called the Fall of Mankind, although we don’t often recognize it in stories like this. In place of the true mother, the true spirit, come false beings who represent materiality, cruelty, selfishness, and surface appearances; all they want are what glitters and is pretty. (It is instructive to note that the Catholic Church, from the fourth century onward, thoroughly replaced the pagan Mother Goddess and named itself as the Mother—the Mother Church, by which it refers to itself to this day. But this was a bogus, political pronouncement; the Church is represented in this story as the wicked step-mother, after the real Mother has “died,” which means killed off by this same Church which was bent on spiritual, political and economic hegemony at any cost.)
The task of picking the lentils out from the ashes is a test: Can the estranged soul find what is valuable amid all that is burned and spent, worthless? In other words, can we find spiritual value in the haste, fears and disappointments of the mundane world? The answer is no, not without help. Now, for the first time in the story, birds make their appearance. As we will see throughout this inquiry, birds are a universal symbol of messengers, to the false, outer world from the true, inner one. We need to be sure we understand that there are indeed two different worlds accessible to we humans – that “reality” is not limited to the world our material senses present to us.
[T]here is a physical order of things and a metaphysical one; there is a mortal nature and an immortal one; there is the superior realm of “being” and the inferior realm of “becoming.” Generally speaking, there is a visible and tangible dimension and, prior to and beyond it, an invisible and intangible dimension that is the support, the source, and true life of the former.
The existence of this metaphysical world is not theoretical, and its existence is not debatable. The only way to gain insights about what it’s like is through knowledge, which can partially come through writings and spoken words, but then ultimately must be experienced first-hand, for understanding only comes experientially. As we are just beginning to approach the spiritual realms in our inquiry, stories like Cinderella help us obtain ideas of what it might be like. The two pigeons here represent metaphysical eyesight and ability; Cinderella could never have picked out all the lentils from the ashes; symbolically to see and extract what is of value from what is dross. The pigeons represent a perspective where this is not only possible, it’s easy. In other Fairy Tales, a bird is depicted, for example, with a pearl inside to represent hidden treasures, not of this world, but another, since the pearl is unseen. Here, even when Cinderella gives the lentils back to her stepmother, the latter rejects them and is unable to see the concentrated value they represent.
Birds in myths from around the world often represent messengers from the unseen world to the mundane one. We will examine many bird used as symbols of something else as we go along, but here, the next appearance of a bird sits in the hazel tree that grew up over her mother’s grave. Cinderella’s father obtained the hazel branch at her request, but he is as confused as everyone else, and merely did what Cinderella asked of him. He lacks the right type of vision, for he cannot see her after she returns from the ball. He is of no real help to her in the story. Indeed, it is she who will be able to help him at the end.
In ancient Celtic lore, trees were symbolically very important, and each different type of tree had definite meanings; this even went so far as assigning a different type of tree to each letter of the alphabet. In Gaelic the word for hazel tree is translated as “to keen over a death,” or “the loss of something.” This fits perfectly in our story since the hazel tree grows over the grave of the lost Mother Goddess.
We might be satisfied to stop our analysis here, but there is yet another dimension to discover. Brighid (or Bridgit) is the Celtic goddess associated with wisdom and divine inspiration. Cinderella’s mother represents this wisdom, but Cinderella, in her present state, like all the rest of us, cannot reach it across the boundary of life and death. Indeed, the story is telling us that it is Cinderella who is in a real sense “dead.” She wears grey clothing and lives amid the ashes of a dead fire, which once was and could be again, an inner spiritual fire that would transform her—and which could also transform us. Although Cinderella and her mother cannot communicate directly, a tree of wisdom has grown over the gravesite, and a beautiful bird lives in that tree which grants Cinderella her every wish. This bird, though, far from being an independent entity, is a part of Cinderella, as it is only accessible when she sits under the tree in what we want to say must have been a meditative state. The lesson here is clear: even the least of us, even the grayest, the poorest, the dirtiest, those of us in the most dire situations, can reach this source of wisdom, and thereby transform ourselves.
In the French version, and the Disney version also, the fairy godmother plays the same role as do the tree and the white bird, but what is lost is the idea that such wisdom can be obtained with inner effort. Those waiting for a fairy godmother to show up and transform them with her magic wand will wait forever, because then we give our innate abilities to a fantasy figure who, in this form at least, is never going to show up. By contrast, Cinderella sought out the source of wisdom, and although it was not directly accessible to her—her “mother” was dead—she found a way to access Her wisdom, by “growing” the hazel tree with her tears and prayers, and sat under the tree until the white bird came forth. This is specifically a hazel tree; in other Celtic stories, it is the hazel nuts that grant wisdom; Celtic heroes and the druids would chew hazel nuts to gain inspiration and knowledge.
As an aside, the mere fact of a Fairy Godmother who does “magic” for us is both a blessing and a curse. In fact, Her aid is wonderful, but it only appears after we have done the initial work that allows her to appear; she does not often come before then.
The hazel tree is a link between two worlds: the mundane world we live in, and the metaphysical Otherworld or spiritual realm. These two worlds were once one in our awareness—the Mother was once alive in our common awareness. Her “death” signified the separation of these worlds, which in other places is presented as a Fall from Grace. However, such Grace, such Wisdom, is still accessible if we will but work to achieve it, and that is the inner meaning of the Cinderella story. By donning the gifts Spirit has brought her—by incorporating those gifts inside her being—she obtains her heart’s desire, which the handsome prince represents. To live happily ever after is her spiritual reward, which has already transcended death through the agency of the hazel tree.
One more footnote on this version regarding the two birds that appear at the end of the story, in case we have not fully understood it. When Cinderella rides off with the prince, two white doves alight on her shoulders. The first point to make is that the white bird of vision and wisdom that sat in the tree need no longer do so; Cinderella has become transformed, and now can carry the transcendental wisdom around wherever she goes. Secondly, the two birds correspond to Hugin and Munin, the two ravens that sat on the Norse god Odin’s shoulders. Hugin represents the conscious mind and personality, our purpose, how we feel about things and what we put our attention on. Munin represents memory, the accumulated record of awareness we carry with us – personal, cultural and racial. Munin is the link to and awareness of the entire transpersonal world. Hugin and Munin are two voices, inner guides, to which Odin listens.
Hugin and Munin fly each day
Over the battlefield Earth.
I am anxious for Hugin that he returns not
But I fear more for Munin.
Hugin can easily get distracted in our daily lives – as he flies over the battlefield Earth. But if we lose Munin, the full, multidimensional matrix of life in which we also live, we are truly lost. The stepsisters and Cinderella’s false mother have lost both birds, which is the meaning of their eyes being pecked out; they cannot see past the pretty clothes and sparkling jewels, the superficialities of everyday life. Cinderella, on the other hand, has become reconnected to spiritual guidance and wisdom, and this tale reflects that choice that is available to each of us: we have a choice to live in the Fallen state or not.
 Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment
 Titchenell, Elsa-Brita, The Masks of Odin, p. 6.
 The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, p. 122.
 Evola, Julius, Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 1.
 See for example Robert Graves, The White Goddess or Steve Balmires, Celtic Tree Mysteries.
 From the Grimner’s Lay in the Poetic Edda, stanza 20, quoted in The Masks of Odin, p. 168.