I’m a big fan of podcasts. I listen to them whenever I get the chance—while I’m going for walks, working in my garden, cleaning the house, or traveling to the mainland to take care of all the errands and chores I can’t do here on the island. Not too long ago, I came across a podcast called Disney Story Origins, a well-produced and fascinating show that explores the real history behind all the best-loved Disney films. Sadly, the podcast hasn’t had any recent updates, but it led me to research the source material behind of many of the films that hadn’t yet been covered by Disney Story Origins.
When I began researching the Cinderella fable, my interest was really sparked. There are many variations on the Cinderella story to be found in folklore from all around the world, but the oldest known iteration of the tale comes from ancient Egypt. As most of my readers know, I’m a big fan of ancient Egypt—so the more I learned about a girl called Rhodopis and her special rose-gold slippers, the more I felt compelled to write a novelization of her story.
The basics of the Rhodopis fable—the earliest Cinderella story—are as follows. Rhodopis was a Greek courtesan living in Egypt. The other courtesans with whom she lived made her life miserable, and mocked her cruelly when their master wouldn’t allow Rhodopis to attend a great feast at the Pharaoh’s palace. After the lucky girls had gone off to the feast, Rhodopis went despondently down to the river to bathe. But a great bird (either an eagle or a falcon, depending on who’s telling the story) stole one of her beautiful, rose-gold slippers from the bank. The bird flew to the Pharaoh’s palace and dropped the slipper in his lap. The Pharaoh was entranced by the slipper’s delicate beauty, and vowed to marry whichever woman the slipper belonged to. He searched throughout Egypt until he found Rhodopis, who produced the other slipper as proof of ownership. …And they lived happily ever after!
My enthusiasm for Egypt made me want to spin Rhodopis’ story out into a full novel, but there’s not a whole lot in the fable to build on. I decided to flesh out the fable by turning to real Egyptian history. I planned to drop Rhodopis into the middle of true historic events and see how she would fare.
Further research revealed that there was apparently a real Rhodopis—an actual woman who lived in Egypt, working as a hetaera—a high-class courtesan. Historic sources, including Strabo and Herodotus, referenced the popular entertainer. Although she lived in Egypt, Rhodopis is identified as a Thracian woman, not as a native Egyptian. Indeed, her name is a Greek one. It means “rosy-cheeked,” which may have been a reference to her propensity to sunburn in the intense Egyptian sun. She started her career as the slave of a man called Iadmon. Aesop, the famous fable-teller, was also said to have been a slave in Iadmon’s household; Aesop and Rhodopis were said to have been good friends. The real Rhodopis—that is, not the figure from the Cinderella tale—lived during the reign of Pharaoh Amasis II, sometime between 570 and 536 BCE.
Once I realized that Rhodopis had lived in Egypt during Amasis II’s reign, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. During this time, Egypt was facing some real difficulties. Cambyses, King of Persia, was eager to conquer the Nile Valley and expand his already impressive empire. For reasons that remain unclear, Egypt was not the superpower it once had been. Egypt was also forging new ties to Greece during this era; Amasis took a Greek princess as one of his wives, dedicated several important and strategic business districts to Greek merchants, and paid for the reconstruction of the Temple of Delphi after it burned down. Egypt enjoyed flourishing wealth during this period of intense friendship with the Greeks, but Egypt’s military might was on the wane.
It’s likely that the Greek alliance had nothing to do with Egypt’s flagging military power, but I found the influx of Greek culture the perfect excuse to stir up drama in my fictional setting, and of course Amasis’ fondness for all things Greek made the inclusion of a pretty Greek courtesan like Rhodopis natural and easy.
Amasis’ obsession with Greece probably had nothing to do with the downfall of the Egyptian army, but the Pharaoh was known to have made one particularly damning blunder. When the Persian king Cambyses requested an Egyptian princess for a bride, Amasis duped him, sending instead the daughter of the previous Pharaoh, whom Amasis had deposed. When she got to Persia, the angry and betrayed woman colluded with Cambyses to overthrow Egypt and put a Persian king on the throne of the Two Lands.
Now, there’s the stuff good novels are made of! Trickery, vengeance, and the hellish fury of a woman scorned. To find out how I maneuvered Rhodopis, the original Cinderella, into position to plot the downfall of the Egyptian empire, you’ll have to read my latest novel, White Lotus, which is the first volume in a trilogy about Rhodopis. You’ll also discover how I worked in Aesop, Iadmon, the passionate but somewhat foolish brother of the famous poet Sappho, and Archidike, who was the only other hetaera (other than Rhodopis) to have been remembered by history.
White Lotus is available now in ebook and paperback formats. The second volume in the trilogy, Persian Rose, is coming in March, and the final volume, Blood Hemlock, will be out in June of this year. I hope you’ll enjoy Rhodopis’ story!
Libbie Hawker, February 27, 2017