Origins of Rapunzel (Part One of Four)

Fairy Tales

A few months ago, I delved into the beloved fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, exploring origins, themes, and modern interpretations. In February, I plan to do the same with the story of Rapunzel. I’ve made no secret of my love for fairy tales, and the recent release of Tangled, Disney’s film version of Rapunzel, rekindled my interest in this particular one. In the past, Rapunzel hasn’t received the same degree of attention as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, or Snow White (perhaps in part because it lacked a major film rendition to bring it into popular culture) but it’s a long-lived tale, well-known in many cultures. So where did it originate?

Unlike many fairy tales, Rapunzel emerged not from oral storytelling, but straight from literature. In 1637, Giambattista Basile wrote a story entitled Petrosinella (parsley), which provided the fodder for future Rapunzel stories. All the story basics are there–a pregnant woman craves an item growing in the garden of a supernatural being (in this case, an ogress) and when caught, gives up her child to spare her own life. The child is then locked in a tower for years and later discovered by her love and emboldened to make an attempt at escape.

While Petrosinella didn’t come from folklore directly, there’s no doubt it took shape under the influence of the history, legend, and culture of its time. Central to the concept of Rapunzel stories is a young woman locked away (thus the Aarne-Thompson classification 310–maiden in the tower tales), a common happenstance in legend and life in past eras. Greek mythology recounts the story of Danae, whose father received a prophesy that her son would one day kill him. So he locked her a bronze chamber to prevent her from ever having children, but Zeus visited her there and became the means for fulfillment of the oracle.

The later tale of St. Barbara recounts the story of a beautiful woman whose father, fearful that she might marry someone unworthy of her, locked her in a tower. During her confinement, she became a Christian, forsaking her pagan roots. When she refused to recant her faith, her enraged father beheaded her for her “rebellion.” In consequence, he was struck by lightning and killed, and Barbara was nominated for sainthood.

Such stories were not uncommon, especially during periods of history where women had limited rights, and the idea of them being forced into confinement (whether convent, tower, or some other location altogether) by those in authority over them was not far-fetched. Unlike the legends of Danae and Barbara, sometimes the parents only wished to spare their daughters from harm, as in the Turkish tale surrounding Kiz Kulesi, where a father locks his daughter in a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus Straight to prevent her prophesied death by snakebite. As in many such stories, he accidentally ends up fulfilling the prophesy by bringing her a basket of fruit in which a snake concealed itself. So these early tales and cultural forces doubtless shaped the perspective of Basile as he wrote Petrosinella, but the tale itself is distinctive enough that most scholars consider it to originate from written word rather than spoken tradition.

Come back next Friday for a look at some of the many versions of Rapunzel!


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