Where Did Rapunzel Come From?

More and more lately, my hair has been getting in my way. So much so that I decided I need a haircut … which made me reflect on Rapunzel’s long hair … and then start to wonder where Rapunzel originated?

Rapunzel Illustration by John B. Gruelle and R. Emmett Owen for Grimm's Fairy Stories book from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johnny_Gruelle_illustration_-_Rapunzel_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_11027.jpg.
Rapunzel Illustration by John B. Gruelle and R. Emmett Owen for Grimm’s Fairy Stories book from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johnny_Gruelle_illustration_-_Rapunzel_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_11027.jpg.

I knew there was a Brothers Grimm version of Rapunzel. And when I checked it out, I found that there are actually different versions of the Grimm fairy tale called Rapunzelthe first published in 1812 in the Grimm Brothers’ book Children’s and Household Fairy Tales and the last version published in 1857 within the seventh edition of the Grimm book of fairy tales. You may have heard how the Grimm Brothers were writing their tales with a youthful audience in mind. Because of this, they edited out more adult themes as subsequent editions of their fairy tale books were published in order to make them more child friendly.

But I digress. The basic image most of us have of Rapunzel—and why I thought of her when I realized my hair was getting to be longer than I like it—is of someone with really, really, really long hair. So long she could lower it out her window from atop the tower she was locked in so that someone could use it to climb up that tower.

When you look back before the Grimms’ 1812 book of fairy tales, you find that they adapted Rapunzel from Friedrick Schulz’s 1790 publication of Rapunzel. Going back even further, you discover that Schulz’s Rapunzel was based on Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force‘s 1698 tale, Persinette. Persinette can then be traced back even further to the 1634 Italian fairy tale Petrosinella collected and retold by Giambattista Basile.

Basile’s Petrosinella is the oldest European version of Rapunzel known, but if you go back to the 10th century, there is a Persian fairy tale known as Rudāba (contained in the epic poem The Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, written between 977 and 1010 CE). Just as Rapunzel does, Rudāba lowers her hair down from her palace (Rudāba was a princess of Kabul) so that her lover, Zāl, could use it as a rope to climb up.

But Rudāba still isn’t the oldest version of a story, legend, or myth that could be tied to Rapunzel. If you go clear back to Saint Barbara, who died around 200 CE (however the tales surrounding her can only be dated back to the 7th century), legend says her father Dioscorus locked her in a tower for protection because so many suitors were drawn to her great beauty. Although there are no reports of Saint Barbara having long hair, rumor has it she escaped before her father came to kill her (you see, Saint Barbara converted to Christianity and her Roman father was more than a little mad about it).

Photo of the Tower of Mangia (Torre del Mangia) in Siena, Tuscany, Italy by tatlin from https://pixabay.com/photos/torre-siena-medieval-tower-tuscany-101431/.
Photo of the Tower of Mangia (Torre del Mangia) in Siena, Tuscany, Italy by tatlin from https://pixabay.com/photos/torre-siena-medieval-tower-tuscany-101431/.

So … returning to my original question—where did Rapunzel come from? If you agree Rapunzel grew out of legends about Saint Barbara, then either Heliopolis in modern-day Lebanon or Nicomedia in modern-day Turkey, which are the most likely locations associated with legends of Saint Barbara.

If you think a clearer connection can be made between Rapunzel and Rudāba, then it’s Iran (modern-day Persia).

Or if you can’t make the leap between either Saint Barbara or Rudāba and Rapunzel, then your vote would be the Italian Petrosinella.

And now it’s time to go get my own hair cut before anyone comes by trying to lock me up in a tower!!!

Have a wonderful month, everyone! 🙂

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