Looking for Gold: The Alchemy of Cinderella, by Mary A. Osborne

The hidden teachings of a beloved fairy tale

Once upon a time, “The wife of a rich man fell ill, and when she felt that she was nearing her end she called her only daughter to her bedside and said, ‘Dear child, continue devout and good. Then God will always help you, and I will look down upon you from heaven and watch over you.’”1 So begins Cinderella, the tale of an unfortunate daughter who dreams of attending the King’s ball and receives assistance through a series of enchantments. In Grimms’ version, we find her grieving at her mother’s snow-covered grave, toiling in her dusty chimney corner, waltzing at the palace. The story is otherworldly from the start, and the closer one reads the more ethereal looms the landscape, the more incorporeal the prince.

The maiden’s odyssey plays out not on terra firma, not in the creative narrative of the imagination, but deep in the haze of the unconscious mind. Here interred lies the crucible of unresolved conflicts and inner demons—an alchemist’s cauldron of base metals melted and mixed with minerals and acids, salts and spirits. When the recipe is just right, the humble ingredients turn to gold. Cinderella will shed many tears and suffer through numerous trials before the desired transmutation comes to pass. But in the end, common lead turns to pure, precious metal: an imperfect soul transformed.

In the beginning, she was downcast, her noble lineage all but forgotten. Cruelly mocked by her wicked stepsisters, she was made to sleep by the hearth among the cinders and wear a plain gray frock, to cook and clean morning till night. But when the King proclaimed a festival, she rallied to make a wish, inviting in the magic of angels. Two white doves threw down a gorgeous gown of gold and silver and a pair of dainty slippers.

When Cinderella danced with the prince, it was a glimpse of the completeness yet to come: the perfect balance of inward yin and expansive yang, a dance of opposites. At nightfall, when her resplendent robes disappeared, she returned once again to her demoralized state. The prince, faithful and yearning, lay in wait, knowing her worth even while she, sullied with ashes once again, retreated in doubt.

It was Cinderella’s slipper—of gold, not glass in Grimms’—that led him to her. One stepsister then another tried to force on the lost shoe, the first girl cutting off her toe, the second shaving off a bit of her heel. The stream of blood told the prince something was amiss. He kept searching for the rightful owner, his true bride, until he found her and carried her off on his horse. The prince was unwavering in his devotion, but the magic of Cinderella’s transformation was all her own. When the royal wedding ensued, it was not the joining of husband and wife but a mystical union of body and long-forgotten soul, a celebration of recovered losses.

Cinderella. Walther Zweigle, 1919. From Fairy Tales, 1919. Wikimedia Commons. User: FakeShemp

For centuries the familiar fairy tales were told by candlelight on cold winter nights across Europe. Inhabited by menacing huntsmen and sinister stepmothers, the tales were collected and first published in 1812 by the brothers Grimm with the intention of conveying morality to children and teaching the value of virtue and perseverance. Nearly two thousand years earlier, scribes with reed pens wrote parallel versions on Egyptian papyri.2 With and without happy endings, ancient folklore illuminates long-forgotten paths that lead from suffering and trauma to healing and wholeness.

Jungian analysts, inspired by the work of Swiss scholar Marie-Louise von Franz, delve deeper, searching the depths of fairytales to find archetypes and alchemical symbolism that express fundamental patterns of the human psyche. Glimpsed through the psychotherapeutic lens, the wicked stepsisters become Cinderella’s darker shadow side and the handsome prince her animus, a personification of her unconscious mind or inner soul life.3 The animus archetype fits a feminine Cinderella, but awareness of gender fluidity renders obsolete a routine assignment of Jung’s masculine animus archetype to women and feminine anima to men. More accurately, the archetype is discerned through analysis of a person’s patterns and traits and chosen as the best representation of the missing qualities that are needed to achieve emotional balance and spiritual wellbeing.

At the start of the tale, Cinderella lacks the strength to resist her tormenters and the resolve to escape her oppressed state. Meek, puny, soot-covered, unsure of herself, she has only just begun the alchemist’s Great Work. Here in the initial stage known as the nigredo, or blackness, a mood of hopelessness or depression prevails. Stirring the dark sticky mass of metal at the bottom of the cauldron, the alchemist sees not the slightest hint of the promised gold. As an allegory for Jungian shadow work, the nigredo is an opportunity to come to terms with negative, disowned qualities and to recognize untapped potentials and creative capacities.

To bring about the transformation, hidden resentments, fears, and prejudices that no longer serve us have to be winnowed out and left behind. Overlooked talents and unheeded insights are held to the light to be identified, set aside, and nurtured. When the evil stepsisters take away Cinderella’s pretty clothes and make her sort out the peas and lentils tossed among the ashes, she loses pride and vanity but cultivates patience, humility, and awareness of the seeds’ different qualities. The act of separating good from bad, true from false, teaches discernment and subtlety. It also constitutes a form of penance, like the punishment assigned to medieval sinners to cure the ills of the soul. 

Long before Cinderella atones by the hearth, early Christian monks wrestled personal demons and reached for salvation in the desert by fasting, wearing hair shirts, and prostrating themselves on the ground. Through their tears, the penitents uttered pleas for assistance, seeking God in their agony, knowing none of us were meant to suffer alone. Cinderella shares her troubles with a little white bird at her mother’s grave and in doing so enlists the support of supernatural forces; she, too, prays. The invocation that begins communication with God opens the door to higher consciousness and the power of intuition—imperative tools for the alchemist’s journey.

Evolving, overcoming her limitations and wanting more for her life, Cinderella has entered the second stage of the experiment, a purification process called the albedo or whitening. The alchemist’s soul, likened to the starting material in the vessel—the prima materia—undergoes a process of constant distillation, turning from black to white. As the metal is evaporated, then precipitated into another vessel, impure substances are gradually removed. The work of cleansing, the removal of the soot, has to be done over and over again until the whitening finally sticks, until the life lesson is finally mastered.

Cinderella suffers the inevitable setback when she returns home from the ball only to resume her lowly position at the hearth. But she has made progress and her work is rewarded with more gifts of divine magic. Wearing increasingly magnificent dresses brought by the birds, she sneaks off to the festival twice more. Each time she dances with the prince, and each time she darts away from him at nightfall to return alone to her familiar dark corner. 

The three phases of the Magnum Opus: Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo (from Pretiosissimum
Donum Dei
, published by Georges Aurach in 1475). Wikimedia Commons. User: Eltecom

With or without the prince, Cinderella cannot remain in the enchanted castle forever; to do so would be to disengage entirely from reality. But every would-be alchemist is obliged to enter the dream world at some point if the visions that spark transformation are to be found. Protected within the magical realm are remnants of ancient knowledge, universal archetypes, mythic figures, and mystic rites—the ancestral experience that Jung coined the collective unconscious. Here are the strange yet familiar symbols that guide us—as the intellect cannot—through a labyrinth leading ultimately to wellness and self-actualization. The sacred wisdom is always available to us, but we must first desire it, just as Cinderella made the heartfelt wish to attend the ball. 

When she marries the prince, it is the merging of unconsciousness and consciousness, feminine and masculine, yin and yang. In alchemy, the bonding of mercury (associated with the moon) and sulfur (associated with the sun) produces a similar union of opposites. Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, serves as an alchemical symbol of the marriage. With his winged sandals and cap, Hermes is the guide of souls to the underworld and identified as the Roman god Mercury, quicksilver. Metallic but liquid, fiery but cold, poisonous but medicinal, Hermes represents the inner balance that must be attained in order to experience wholeness. 

The mystical wedding, the merging of body/ego and soul known as the alchemist’s coniunctio, forever bonds Cinderella and the prince. Such was the union of Osiris and Isis, from which the divine child Horus was born. For Gnostic Christians, the marriage of Christ and the holy wisdom of the Church (the feminine Sofia) represents the most sacred of archetypes. This cornerstone of the faith, symbolized by the suffering of Christ on the cross, is the alchemist’s longed-for philosopher’s stone, the key to the mystery of the transformation of the soul.

Returned home from the liminal journey, secret in hand, Cinderella is no mere princess but an adept of the Great Work. Her physical being in harmony with her refined soul, she is unencumbered by the doubts and traumas of her past. Fully human with the blood of life, she has achieved the rubedo, the red stone and final stage of the alchemical opus. Healed and whole, purified by trials, her actions are now aligned with her highest purpose. Having completed the inner work, Cinderella has the power to create meaningful change in the outer world as she returns again to the ordinary magic of daily living.

As an archaic science, medieval alchemy was long ago surpassed by modern chemistry. As a guide to the purification of the soul, the Great Work is not quite obsolete. By candlelight in clandestine laboratories, practitioners still mix and measure, distill with alembic heated by flame. Perhaps only the saints manage to achieve the permanent whitening of the soul that leads to the coveted philosopher’s stone. Having risen from the earthly mire, the perfected ones, like Cinderella’s white bird, await our pleas for assistance. We may be lost in the darkest wood and blinded by tears, but the help we desperately need has always been promised. “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7). ◆

1 Grimm, Wilhelm, et al. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Grosset & Dunlap, 1963, p. 148.

2 von Franz, Marie-Louise, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Shambhala, Boston, 1996, p. 3.

3 Mirskaya, Liudmila A., and Victor O. Pigulevskiy. “Archetypal Analysis of ‘Cinderella.’” SHS Web of conferences, vol. 122, 2021, p. 06006, www.shs-conferences.org/articles/shsconf/pdf/2021/33/shsconf_frph2021_06006.pdf, 10.1051/shsconf/202112206006. Accessed 19 Mar. 2022.

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2023 issue of Parabola, 
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