Rapunzel: the legend, the fairy tale, the truth

by Tolovaj

Rapunzel is a classic fairy tale which origins can be traced more than thousand years ago. Did Rapunzel really live?

What do we know about Rapunzel? A girl with too long hair or a fighter against the norms of society? Can we recognize ourselves in her pursuit for freedom? Or can we relate with a witch who locked Rapunzel in a tower as many too protective parents do?

Let me provide top 10 curiosities about that fairy tale and real persons behind it!

(Illustration: Henry Justice Ford, PD licence)

Top 10 thoughts on Rapunzel

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

1. If we look for one single detail by which Rapunzel is distinguished from other fairy tales, that would be her long hair. We can find treacherous parents in Hansel and Gretel, over protective father in Sleeping Beauty, jealous mother in Snow White, incompetent father in Rumpelstiltskin and escape of young girls in Cinderella. All these motifs can be find in Rapunzel, but long hair is her own trade mark.

2. Long hair is connected with many beliefs and superstitions. There are numerous stories and legends about long (or strong or golden) hair (or beard). Remember Samson and Delilah? Devil and three golden hairs? Loki and Sif? Long hair is connected to power and magic!

3. There are many primitive tribes who still practice ritual cutting hair of maidens before their marriage. Long hair symbolizes availability and innocence. It is also sexual appealing. Virgins have long hair and magical powers but when they become women, they should concentrate on more practical issues. Short hair is more practical for sure!

Illustrations of Rapunzel

(from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1909)
(from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1909)

(both are in Public Domain)

(from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1922)
(from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1922)

In illustrations above we can see how illustrators in different times with different styles tried to catch the same essence of the signature scene in Rapunzel.

Left illustration is work of Arthur Rackham and right is made by Anne Anderson.

We can hardly see characters on the scene. Hair is absolutely dominant.

Legends, myths and real life related to Rapunzel and religious issues

4. Legend of Saint Barbara (Santa Barbara): Barbara was daughter of Dioscorus, affluent pagan, living in area of today's Turkey. He locked his daughter to protect her from outside world and she secretly became Christian. That was illegal and when Dioscorus found out he dragged Barbara to Martinianus, prefect of province.

After torturing she was condemned to death and her own father decapitated her! Through whole process several miracles occurred: Barbara's wounds healed with amazing speed, her prison was lighted with mysterious light, her traitor turned into stone and her father died of lightning only few hours after he killed her.

5. Rudaba from Persia was also locked in a castle, she had long hair too and she didn't follow her father's rules. She escaped with Zal, who was raised by a mythical creature with magical powers. Rudaba and Zal married in spite of opposition of their parents (they were of different origins and religious beliefs) and she almost died giving birth to their son.

Luckily Zal saved her life with magic feather given by his protector. As in legend of Santa Barbara there were also magical healing and fire involved.

6. We will never now the truth behind legend of Santa Barbara or myth of Rudaba but we know some reliable facts about Madame de la Force. She was French aristocrat, novelist and poet in 18th century. She converted to catholic religion because this simple act gave her a life time rent. She had numerous lovers and finally married much younger man.

Her husband's family disapproved the marriage and convinced the king to revoke the marriage and send Madame de la Force into nunnery. There she wrote several fairy tales and novels, including Persinette, based on her life story and with the same elements as Santa Barbara an Rudaba. Name Persinette comes from parsley (French persille), very popular herb from the nunnery's garden.

Rapunzel by Johnny Gruell (PD licence)

(from Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1914)
Rapunzel by Johnny Gruell
Rapunzel by Johnny Gruell
Revriting, rewriting and some more rewriting

7. Talking about classic fairy tales we must not forget Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile. He wrote his version of Rapunzel (named Petrosinella, what translates Parsley) more than hundred years before Madame de la Force wrote her version. Basile's version was darker, girl was kept by ogress not fairy and in the end ogress dies (de la Force made a happy end with forgiving). Basile's and not de la Force's Rapunzel is now considered as official ancestor to now most known Grimm's Rapunzel.

8. Brothers Grimm very probably wrote first version of their Rapunzel based on Persinette translated by Friedrich Schulz. They made some changes in first edition (fairy for instance becomes a witch, what is closer to Basile's ogress, but she was not punished in the end, because Grimms didn't feel she did anything wrong).

9. Later versions of Rapunzel were rewritten again. Grimms were convinced fairy tales should be educational and didn't approve any immoral behavior. Extramarital relationship between Rapunzel and prince was punished with his fall in thorns and lost of sight. After period of repentance his wounds magically heal (remember Santa Barbara?) and he could finally marry Rapunzel.

One typical change in brother Grimm's rewritings was the moment when the witch finds out about Rapunzel's visitor. In first version Rapunzel innocently asks why is her cloth getting tighter and tighter (she was pregnant) and later she simply asks why is witch heavier than prince (no allusion on immoral behavior).

Saint Barbara is patron of:

Rapunzel becomes Tangled

10. Disney Company retold its own version of Rapunzel (named Tangled), which is loosely based on a classic fairy tale, got some elements of this maybe thousand and five centuries old story (magic, fire, pair of lovers in trouble and of course a lot of hair) but misses the main point.

Rapunzel in its many variants talks about confrontation of an individual with norms of society, about young person seeking freedom which always comes with responsibility, but Disney's version is just another action movie. With budget of 260 million dollars (most expensive animated movie in history) it is great product for sure but if you like a really good story, don't miss Rapunzel as a fairy tale!

More resources for fairy tales lovers

Extra, extra, read all about it!

From Rapunzel to Tangled
How the story about Rapunzel evolved through centuries. Relations with legend of Saint Barbara, myth of Rudaba and many more interesting details about Rapunzel.

Fairy tales and stuff
Classic fairy tales are in public domain and same stands for many classic illustrations. Here is list of numerous resources to download collections of fairy tales. Of course this is still work in process.

Rapunzel in Pictures
If you enjoyed different visions of different illustrators of Rapunzel in this article, check this post dedicated entirely to illustrations of Rapunzel. There are many interesting styles already present and the project is still growing.

Who was the real Rapunzel?
We believe the story of Rapunzel (Tangled) is based on real persons and events. To find the truth, we must travel more than thousand years back in time!

Updated: 02/04/2024, Tolovaj
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What do you think about origins of Rapunzel?

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Tolovaj 18 days ago

I don't think any of them was a real person. In my opinion both are built as fusion of many characteristics from many sources.

DerdriuMarriner 22 days ago

What with the 2023 release of her latest book, The ghost ship, I have been rereading other fiction by Kate Mosse.

The aforementioned author imagined a short-story sequel, La fille de Mélisande ("The daughter of Millicent"), to the Achille-Claude Debussy opera Pelléas et Mélisande to the same-named Maurice Maeterlinck play.

She mentions her heroine as having Rapunzel-like hair and as possibly sequestered sometimes in the Allemonde tower.

Might there be a tradition behind the Pelléas et Mélisande story that links with the Rapunzel story? Might this therefore be a literary allusion to Mélisande as a possible actual person even as Rapunzel might be an actual person?

Tolovaj on 07/22/2019

Sorry, DerdriuMarriner, for my late response, I was on vacation. Thanks for you comment, it's appreciated as always. You ae right - we'll never know who really inspired the today's version of Rapunzel - Rudaba and Saint Barbara both share several characteristics with her. But we can always speculate don't we?

DerdriuMarriner on 07/08/2019

Tolovaj, Thank you for the photos and presentation. Would it not seem like Saint Barbara is the most anciently identified possible source (unless the Shahnameh draws upon more ancient possibilities)?

JW on 02/11/2015

Check out these fun facts and figures behind Rapunzel's story http://www.blinds-supermarket.co.uk/b...

Tolovaj on 06/03/2014

Long hair is impractical and totally unnecessary from biological point of view, but it has a certain element of showing off and most cultures in the world have very special attitude to hair (length, color, lack of, etc.). I suppose this is part of the reason for Rapunzel's popularity. Thanks, VioletteRose, for stopping by!

VioletteRose on 06/03/2014

Its interesting to read about the related myths, thanks for sharing. Rapunzel is a really nice story and I love long hair :)

Tolovaj on 05/18/2013

I didn't see the movie. WriterArtist. I can only guess it is pretty different than the Grimms' version. I'll have to check it one day:)

WriterArtist on 05/17/2013

You created many more perspectives of the fairy tale. I loved the version of Rapunzel shown as a movie. I adored the girl and the bandit who fell in love with her. I can watch this movie many times without getting bored.

Tolovaj on 08/08/2012

Thanks, zteve!

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