Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Origins of Aschenputtel

A pot of beans that ended on the kitchen floor—on the way to being soaked for some hours—caused a discussion of that, you know, that fairy tale, the girl who had to count beans or peas or something. Can you think of the name of that? Snow White it certainly was not, nor Sleeping Beauty, nor Little Red Riding Hood. At last it came to us—but in its German version, which was done by the Brothers Grimm: Aschenputtel. Cinderella.

When it comes to fairy tales, the original author is usually lost in the mists of time. So with our Aschenputtel. The second part, puttel, is not present in German, but some scholars think that it comes from buddeln, to dig, thus “ash digger.” But since there is a German word for a lowly servant, a scullion or kitchen helper, called Aschenbrödel, it might be safer to assume that the Grimm brothers formed that ending to suit themselves. The word is treated as a masculine noun, hence one experiences the fascinating linguistic phenomenon, reading the German version, of having our Cinderella referred to as “he” in contexts where that name appears. But for the German-speaker that produces no dissonance at all.

Now there are clear differences between cinders and ashes, so why do the Germans use ash? Cinder is hard slag, ashes are dusty. The German for it is Sinter. The reason for the usage is because the Grimms translated Cendrillon (that’s our Cinderella), and the word for ashes in French is cendre.

The story appears to originate in China circa 850 AD (Online Etymology Dictionary). Its “recent” history begins in 1634 when it appeared in a collection of stories written by Giambattista Basile in Italian; there she is called “Cenerentola.” Next came the French version by Charles Perrault, “Cendrillon.” The Grimm’s version appeared in 1812.

Well worth reading the story using grown-up eyes (link). Like all such tales, it has endless levels of meaning. In the modern day it mirrors the experience of children who undergo the traumas of divorce.

The man [Aschenputtel’s father] had taken another wife. The woman had brought with her into the house two daughters, who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart…


  1. I had always wondered why it was cinders in English despite being ashes in German; ashes make more sense symbolically, because cinders usually symbolize impurity, while ashes symbolize purification. But it makes sense if it's due to the influence of the French.

  2. Got to thinking. The French did not have a king wishing to be divorced — hence also lack a Book of Common Prayer — where we find that great verse, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But both words are present, sure enough, in the Old Testament verses in the French Bible used as inspiration for the Burial Service of the Brits:

    A la sueur de ton visage tu mangeras ton pain, jusqu’à ce que tu retournes au sol, puisque tu en fus tiré. Car poussière tu es et à la poussière tu retourneras. Genèse 3:19.

    Tu as profané tes sanctuaires par la multitude de tes iniquités, par l'injustice de ton trafic; je ferai surgir de ton sein un feu qui te consumera, et je te réduirai en cendre par toute la terre, en la présence de tous ceux qui te regardent. Ezekiel 28:18

    The French for Ash Wednesday? Mercredi des Cendres.

  3. Thanks for the interesting etymology work here. Linguistic origins aside, I reckon there's one other mark in favor of "Cinderella" over "Ashley" or whatever Ash-ish word might have been chosen. "Cinderella" scans flowingly as a word. It's evocative of something beautiful coming from the cinders.

  4. You're right, John, "Cinderella" has a musically pleasant sound. On the other hand, Aschenputtle, the very sound of it is anything but pleasant. "Puttle" reminds me of puttering, poking around or messing around, not quite a useful action.
    Though picking up and cleaning my accidentally spilled beans the other day was useful as well as a necessary task...

    Hm, whence does the current meaning of "she spilled the beans" come?


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