Fairytale History of Rapunzel

Niina Pekantytär

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In the different versions of Rapunzel, we come across very different kinds of heroines. Some of them are very active and independent thinkers and others fit into the description of a damsel in distress.

The first literal version of Rapunzel originates from ancient Persia from the 9th-century fairy tale collection Shamanech. It is a story about a woman called Rubada whose name means the daughter of the flowing river. She was a noblewoman and the princess of Kabul. She was told to have long black beautiful hair. Suitors came from all over the ancient world to ask for her hand. One of them was Char the king of Iran. He had heard about the great beauty of the princess. He walked to the edge of the palace. He crabbed to Rubada´s hair and climbed into the balcony. The couple fell in love but Rubada´s father disliked Iranians. He seek counselling from a fortuneteller who said that the couple would have a son who would become the greatest hero of all Persia. After the father heard this he gave his approval and Char and Rubada got married. They had a son called Rostal, who became a great hero.

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Saint Barbara​

The first European version of Rapunzel comes from 4th century Greece. It is a Catholic legend of St.Barbara. She was told to be a beautiful woman with very long hair. According to folklorists Barbara lived in Turkey when it was under the Roman empire. Barbara´s father was a pagan merchant called Diokurus. He disliked the new religion and was afraid that Barbara would turn Catholic. To prevent this he locked the girl into the tower. She was sent clothes, food and suitors but Barbara didn´t have any desire to get married. One day someone hid religious texts in the basket. Barbara read them and convert to Catholicism. Soon after she became severely ill. The doctor was called and he turned out to be a priest. When her father was away Barbara asked the priest to baptise her. When their father found out what she had done he became outraged and tried to kill her. Soldiers began chasing her. In the end, they managed to grab her from the hair. Barbara was executed and at the same time lightning struck and killed her father. St.Barbara has been canonised by the Catholic church but there isn´t any historical record or archaeological evidence which would prove that she actually existed.

In South-American Joruba religion there is the god Archetype Shangu who portrays possession. The parent locks the child into the tower so that the child won't change and this action turn against the parent. This is a motif that comes across in all versions of Rapunzel.

Birth of a fairytale

In the 17th century Italian writer, Giambattista Basile wrote his version of Rapunzel. His heroine was called Persinette which means parsley. The woman lived next to a manor where a family of trolls resided. She was pregnant and was craving parsley. Trolls grew parsley in their garden and woman went to pick some. Troll found out and told the woman that a time would come when she would take her child. At the age of 12, a troll locked Persinette into a tower where she lived to her teenage years. One day her singing was overheard by a duke. He climbed into the tower and became friends with Persinette. One day she heard trolls talking about her and the prince and the couple decided to escape together. Persinette stole magical mushrooms from the trolls and when they were running away trolls behind them, Persinette threw them into the air and they turned into magical animals. The first animal was a bulldog from Corsica. The next one was a lion and the third one was a giant wolf, who ate all the trolls. Basile´s Persinette is a talkative, smart, sassy and very active character.

​In 1698 French author Charlotte de la Forte wrote her version. The plot is very similar to Basile´s story but de la Forte´s villain is not a troll but an evil fairy. Persinette´s ”tower” is more similar to a luxury hotel. De la Forte spent lots of time describing the interiors of the tower which was decorated in the style of baroque. When Persinette meets the prince for the first time she gets frightened because she hasn´t ever met a man before. When Persinette becomes pregnant she doesn´t know what is wrong with her. Prince realises the situation but does not want to upset the girl so he won't tell her. When the fairy finds out what is going on she sends Persinette to a remote island and pushes the prince out of the window and the prince loses his eyesight. After looking for Persinette for years prince finally finds her.

Brothers Grimm's version was based on de la Forte´s story. Brothers named the girl Rapunzel and the evil fairy got the name Gothel. Unlike other versions of the story which took place in manors, in the Grimm's fairy tale the tower is hidden deep in the forest out of sight.

In the first version Rapunzel accidentally reveals to Mother Gothel that she is pregnant by saying:

”This corset has become too tight on the upper waste”

The scene was taken away and replaced with a scene where Rapunzel is pulling Mother Gothel up to the tower and says:

”Oh mother, how come it is so much harder to pull you up than that handsome prince”.

The symbol of Rapunzel is their long hair which has magical properties. The first literal versions of the story come from the 16th century a time period when long hair was a sign of a noblewoman, who kept their hair closed and decorated them with heavy ornaments. Loose hair was considered immoral and inappropriate. In the fairytale, the rules of society are meant to be broken. Rapunzel running free with her hair loose symbolizes freedom from any authority, patriarchy and controlling parents.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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