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From Rapunzel to Tangled: The History of Real Rapunzel(s)

Updated on May 13, 2017

Petrosinella, Not Rapunzel

Original Rapunzel was written in 19th century by brothers Grimm, but as many other classic fairy tales, we can find its ancestor in Giambattista Basile's Pentameron named Petrosinella (different vegetable, same story) aiming at an adult audience in the 17th century. And this is only the beginning of our little investigation.

We have good reasons to believe Rapunzel is at least thousand and three hundred years older!

It is our intention to show the seeds of this popular story in several cultural, historical and literary backgrounds - all with short summaries and explanations.

(all used images are public domain)

Petrosinella (Parsley) by Cruikshank
Petrosinella (Parsley) by Cruikshank

Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara by Robert Campin
Saint Barbara by Robert Campin

Saint Barbara and her Legend

St. Barbara is a patron of artillery and mining. In fact, she is a patron of almost everything related to explosions, so armorers, gunsmiths, musketeers and military engineers are all under her patronage.

How come?

According to the legend, Barbara was a daughter of a wealthy man in the third century in Nicomedia (part of today's Turkey). Her father was very protective and being afraid of the bad influence of outside world he locked her in a tower. Isolation gave her a lot of time to think and she became convinced Roman gods are of no good. She turned to Christianity, have been secretly baptized and when her father asked her if she will marry a rich man chosen by him, she rejected him.

When Barbara's father found out about her new religion (which was banned), she turned her to pro-Consul.

Barbara was tortured (legend says her faith into Christ was so strong her wounds healed immediately) and later condemned to death. Her own father volunteered to kill her!

When he decapitated her, on the way home lightning killed him and the legend was born.

After that Barbara became protector against lightning and patron of miners who were constantly dealing with dangerous explosives and facing death every day.

Because Barbara supposedly lived in the third century but first documents mentioning her name are dated from the seventh century, the legend is too unclear to be certified in the official Catholic church. Saint Barbara was erased from the list of martyrs and saints in 1969, but she is still a popular saint in the Orthodox church.

We'll try to trace the elements of the legend of St. Barbara in fairy tale Rapunzel, but we should also mention another interesting woman.

Birth of Rostam, great hero of Persia

Rudaba giving birth to Rostam
Rudaba giving birth to Rostam

Rudaba (also known as Roodabeh)

Rudaba was beauty from Persian epic Shahnama. Her name can be literally translated as a shiny child and she was really special. But in legend, we find out only about her physical appearance and about high position of her father, nothing more. Interesting things started to happen when her beauty attracted Zal.

Zal was one of a kind too. He was a son of Persian hero Saam, but his father rejected him at birth because Zal was born as albino and this was considered a bad omen. So Saam abandoned the kid on the mountain where Simurgh, mythical creature with wings heard a kid crying and decided to take care of him. Zal grew up and as young man left Simurgh who gave one of his feathers to use it if he gets into trouble.

He sure did, right after he first met Rudaba...

Zal was astonished by her beauty and Rudaba seemed quite interested too. So interested, she first made an inquiry at her friends about him and after she heard only favorable opinions she let down her tresses so he can climb up to visit her on the top of the castle's tower.

But both fathers disapprove marriage because Rudaba was of Babylonian origin.

So Zal insisted on his father so long the highest authority, Shah himself, noticed the case. And after astrologers read in the stars about the potential of the matrimony: a baby boy who will conquer the world (!), all sides came together to celebrate the marriage.

Happy end?

Scenes from the Book of Kings


Not really. Firstborn of Rudaba was so big, she nearly died before his birth. Zal then remembered the feather of his surrogate father, threw it in fire and some mysterious image showed him how to cut his wife's tummy to save both lives. Rostam, great Persian hero was born!

This is the happy end and also probably the first caesarean section in history.

Please note similarities with the legend of Saint Barbara: isolation in the tower, long hair, resistance to authority and magic healing and magic property of fire are obvious. We can also add the absence of mothers. They are unimportant to the story and they were unimportant as persons. All decisions were made by a man because this was a typical patriarchal structure in both cases.

Add half a millennium and ladies gained some more power...

Petrosinella by Basile

Giambattista Basile used the same plot in Petrosinella in Pentamerone from the beginning of 17th century. It started with a pregnant woman craving for parsley from ogress' garden. When she was caught she had to promise to give up her child.

When Petrosinella grew up, the prince found her, they escaped together and when ogress tried to follow them, she was eaten by a wolf.

Similarities with both legends are obvious.


Petrosinella's similarities with St. Barbara and Rudaba

Long hair

Long hair is a traditional symbol of magic power in women, but this power changes when girls turn to women. Braids are still cut off in some cultures when a young woman marries.

Girl in prison

A young girl is a great treasure, so she should be kept safe. The tower is the best place for that.

Magic changes

Escape from prison is connected with something supernatural.

Louis XIV, King of France
Louis XIV, King of France

Madame de la Force

Who was Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force?

In Wehnert's vision prince use ladder, not braids
As we can conclude from the name, she was French novelist and poet. She was also a unique lady with very indecent behavior (traveling a lot, having tons of lovers and finally married a much younger man). As born aristocrat, she got a chance to earn substantial pension if she converted from protestant to catholic religion.

She did that and being in good relationship with the king, life looked good for her, but her family and father of her groom disagreed with the marriage and after a while, it was annulled. Because of her scandalous behavior, the king gave her a chance to retain her pension only if she goes to a convent!

So she went to the convent where she wrote some of the most popular novels of 18. century, including Persinette, the official ancestor of Rapunzel...

Persinette is a daughter of a mother who had insatiable crave for parsley (persille is French for parsley) from the neighbors garden. Unfortunately garden belonged to a fairy who wasn't very happy when finding out the husband of expecting a mother with a fist full of parsley. They made a deal: he can take all parsley he (better say his wife) wants but he has to give a fairy the baby!

And so Persinette (name chosen by a fairy) after birth came into fairy's home, where she was raised as her daughter. When became twelve years old, fairy put her into luxuriously furnished tower made of silver, where she played music, read books and painted astonishing views available through the high window.

One day, after many years, a prince came by (he was hunting), he hears her singing and after a while, he noticed a fairy who visited and left Persinette by climbing her hair. When fairy left her treasure, he mimicked fairy's voice and said: "Persinette, let down your hair!"

She really did and on thing let to the other. They became lovers and their relationship was disclosed by a fairy when Persinette already expected twins. She punished them but after several years changed her mind. Persinette has a happy ending.

Please, note:

Madame de la Force was well read woman. She was surely familiar with legends of Santa Barbara and Rudaba. She surely knew about Petrosinella from Pentamerone. But we can easily find patterns of her own life in the fairy tale.

The fairy can be an allusion of Louis XIV, who was nice to her but put her into a convent. The convent was nice, but it was really a prison (and in convent's garden was really growing very tasty parsley!). Madame de la Force enjoyed some time with her lover but it was broken from outside just like in Persinette. And the happy ending in the fairy tale is very probably a wish for some sort of amnesty in her own case.

Rapunzel, illustrated by Wanda Gag
Rapunzel, illustrated by Wanda Gag

Rapunzel by brothers Grimm

Friedrich Schulz translated la Force's fairy tale into German and this is the version brothers Grimm included in their collection of 'folk tales'. It is not clear if they were familiar with Schulz's transcription, but is obvious they were aware of the possible impact of the story on children.

When Grimm's realized their book will not be read only by scholars, they started rewriting and Rapunzel (they changed the name of the herb) lost some important elements of earlier versions.

Fairy became a witch. Pregnancy was cleared out of the story. Mother of Rapunzel got a husband (illegitimate children were not very popular in Grimm's times). Rapunzel's shining tower became a dark dungeon.

But the story stood the test of time. It is still a story about youth which can't be locked into prison, it is a story about the clash between generations, a story about the fight for freedom.

The story we can all relate to.

Rapunzel, illustrated by Johnny Gruelle
Rapunzel, illustrated by Johnny Gruelle | Source

Enters Tangled

If we take time and dig more, we can always find another fact or two. What about gossip from Disney? Nobody knows for sure why they changed title Rapunzel to Tangled. But there is a rumour they were afraid Rapunzel sounds too girlish and they wanted to attract more boys in cinemas with a different title...

Your choice for real Rapunzel is...

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So will you let down your hair too?

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    • North Wind profile image

      North Wind 5 months ago from The World (for now)

      It is always hard to trace where a certain fairy tale comes from. These stories you have highlighted are all equally interesting. I had never heard about St. Barbara before and the story of Madame de la Force is definitely one I would like to read about some more!