Cinderbiting: What do Cinderella, Starkad, and a Phoenix have in common?

Colleen Szabo
8 min readApr 26, 2019
Cinderella’s hazel tree

You have probably been misled about Cinderella; that’s normal. You probably think she’s a victim of abusive domestic circumstances who is rescued by a romantic encounter, based on the fact that she’s beautiful and compliant. And most importantly, she gets a makeover from a fairy godmother, including a fancy new mode of transport (the whimsical gourd carriage). However, Cinderella’s story is no romantic platitude but one of the “fairy tales” I call alchemical or transformational stories. It’s symbolically encoded wisdom instruction from European ancestors (yes, surprisingly enough, “white people” have wisdom traditions, too).

The average American is familiar with Cinderella through Disney, who based his film on Charles Perrault’s version. Perrault is famous for originating the literary fairy tale genre, in which a writer bends traditional story elements to their own purpose. The Grimm brothers, however, began as recorders of oral tradition, so generally they kept more of the symbolic wisdom bits when they edited for publication. The wisdom bits often make no sense at all without symbolic interpretation; that’s why they get edited out.

Charlie circa 1694

For example, in the Grimms’ version I use, Cinderella is told by her stepmother to separate some beans or grain from ashes if she wants permission to go to the dance at the castle. Who does that? Nobody; it’s symbolic. There’s a part where the father asks what his daughters want from the market, and Cinderella says she wants whatever strikes his hat on the way home; the gift is therefore a hazel twig. Without any symbolic perspective, that’s even more senseless. However, these examples are encoded wisdom teachings.

I wrote a book length manuscript addressing Cinderella’s wisdom teaching, using a Grimms version. And here’s the Big Whoop Wisdom Point to my bothering to spend all those hours and days and weeks and months and, now, years with her story; CINDERELLA IS NOT A VICTIM; CINDERELLA IS A PERSON WHO MOVES OUT OF VICTIMHOOD INTO WISDOM, ABUNDANCE AND SELF AUTHORITY. And this article addresses one symbol important to her wisdom instruction; the cinders, or ashes, that she hangs out in. Or with.

Marvel character Starkad

To begin, I’ll describe Cinderella with a term that’s found in Old Norse literature; Cinderella is a cinder-biter. From The Private Life of the Old Norsemen by Rudolph Keyser (pub. 1868); “Some instances are recorded…of persons who passed their youth in an unnatural state of idleness. Such as these might constantly be seen crouched over the fire, rolling themselves in the ashes, eating ashes… they would lie in the way of the domestic servants, who would ridicule them, and call them contemptuous names, such as “block heads” or “cinder-biters”…they would eventually emerge from this slothful state, and become notorious for manly prowess or mental excellence.”

The most well-known example of this Old Norse sort of fellow is Starkad. And his cinder-biter phase in the community house fire pit ended with- can you guess? — a makeover. “His foster-brother, Vikar, was the first to rouse him up from his state of lethargy. He gave him decent clothes and weapons, after which everyone was astonished at his more than ordinary strength, and afterwards became known far and wide as a distinguished warrior and Skald.” Though it seems Keyser takes the story quite literally, how does hanging around in ashes for an extended period of time acting socially inappropriate (not working, for one thing) cause a person to become some sort of super powerful being? By the way, a skald is a poet, a storyteller. Storytellers of many ancient cultures like the Norse were, as far as we can tell now, wise folk. In the Norse tradition all-seeing Odin or Wotan was the ruler of both poetry, and warriorship of the higher classes. Thor, on the other hand, is the humble man’s hero who lacks Odin’s artistic sensibilities.

These guys have instructions for Starkad wanna-bes! Build your own Viking firepit.

Comparing Starkad with Cinderella, we’ve got some cutting and pasting to do, since Cinderella’s character actually works her butt off. But hopefully you can see that the elements of isolation, social castigation, and rising from the ash-laden experience as an exceptional citizen, are there in both characters. Notice even that there is a foster- or step-sibling involved. And all of these elements are held together in the simple physical element of ashes.

Here’s where the Phoenix comes in, an ancient mythic animal associated with fire. The Wikipedia article puts it thus; “Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.” The Phoenix is a symbol for rebirth, resurrection, and renewal, and not many storytellers would favor the yucky decomposition angle, though rotting is a very important process in alchemy. I will say that Snow-white’s glass-coffin time is symbolically and essentially alchemical decomposition; a period of disintegration, minus the disgusting aspects of a rotting corpse.

The burning up of the “old me” and a resurrection as “new me” is exactly and precisely what’s happening for Cinderella and Mr. Starkad while they linger by the fire in a state of determined disconnection from their social mileu. They are working up to a rebirth, one reason why they get new clothes and all when they’re done. They are more powerful than before and more powerful than the average citizen because they are no longer operating primarily through their more limited, conditioned personalities, including social conditioning, of course. The old conditioning and its limitations are what burned up, and freedom from limitation is increased power.

Cinderella, Starkad, and the Phoenix depict wisdom development, enlightenment, awakening to higher consciousness. For example, when we move beyond our social conditioning, we drop some of our fears, which are part of said conditioning. Lots of our social conditioning remains in place because we fear what others might say about us; thus the common element in these stories of social castigation. Our cinder-biters are learning to be nonreactive to the opinions of others. Warriors, of course, face the ultimate fear of death, and Cinderella actually does some mortification practice as she goes every day to weep at her mother’s grave- in the Grimms’ version.

One of the other fears Cinderella transcends in her cinder-biting time would be a fear of poverty or lack, or a fear of abundance, both all too common in my society. Her gold and silver gowns (which, by the way, come from birds in the Grimms’ version I use) are symbols. The dresses made of precious metals signify, not only her new relationship with the abundance the prince represents, but growth into authentic, wholistic experience, into self love and self authority. And these benefits arise, like the phoenix, of her time spent by the fire, self inquiring, sifting the seeds (that which enlivens us) from the ashes (that which is no longer alive for us).

Why fire? Earth, air, fire and water all have their transformative powers, but fire is, in symbolic story, the most common symbol of rebirth and change. That’s because fire can be fast, it can hurt (humans are often spurred to change through pain), and it’s ubiquitous in our lives. Even in contemporary Westernized culture, fire is everywhere, though usually hidden and carefully calibrated in our stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and internal combustion engines. Fire is in our digestion, the way we burn up carbohydrates to fuel our bodies. Of course the sun is our most important fire, the king of fires, if you will.

Indeed all of the characters in Cinderella are looking for a do over, most especially the mother who begins the tale, but that’s an interpretive angle for another day. As for the cinder-biting itself, which raises questions surely, it could be some form of physical mortification; I’ll go for that. Charcoal is not the comfiest thing to have in your mouth, though it has cleansing properties. However, it still seems doubtful as an actual activity. More questions come to mind, if we are to take this literally. How many cinders do cinderbiters bite in a day? Is it, say, every two hours that you grab a cinder and bite it? How long do you bite it for? Is it just so that people can tell you you’re a blockhead? Or maybe it’s just a smart way to supplement your diet, before the manufacture of vitamin pills.

I propose that it’s a symbol (fancy that). ‘Bite’ has the etymology of “cut, pierce, split, penetrate”. What if we focus on ‘bite’ as opposed to ‘cinder”? See where I’m going with this? A common way to imagine the conditioned personality, often called ego in my culture, is as a sort of covering or armor of the authentic, fearless self. So the time spent by the transformational fire is a time of biting through the b******t, we could say. It’s time spent piercing through our victimhood, our disappointment, our depression, our constant judging of self and other, our feelings of lack and isolation- all part and parcel of our personality-defense system. In that interpretation, biting the coal means facing our fears, basically, “biting the dust” on purpose so that death of the old can give rise to renewed ways of being in the world. ‘Cinder’ can also refer to an ember, or metal dross or slag- but enough is enough; I rest my case.