The Origin of the Wicked Stepmother Myth and Why It’s So Popular

Think about fairy tales. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it how Cinderella was treated by her stepmother? Or perhaps how Snow White almost got killed by her stepmom. Evidently, the evil stepmom myth plays an integral role in many of our favorite fairy tales. Evil women have been haunting fairytale stories for centuries. But what’s its origin? Read on to find out.

A Rivalry Between Two Women

Maria Tatar, an expert on German folklore at Harvard University, believes a toxic rivalry between two women lies at the heart of the evil stepmother myth. But the trope for that character may be traced to ancient Rome, believes historian Augusto Fraschetti. He pinpoints the myth’s origin to a particular figure. Namely, that’s Livia Druscilla, also known as the first Roman empress. She was Caesar Augustus’s second wife.

Livia’s son Tiberius, who was born when she married Augustus, was to be the next Roman emperor. That happened after a series of events that, the historian believes, signify foul play from Livia. There’s an early piece of evidence that supports this hypothesis.

Tacitus, who lived from A.D. 56 to 120, portrayed her as an evil stepmother who became a ruthless and power-hungry individual who stopped at nothing to make her son the heir to the throne in his version of Roman history.

The Wicked Stepmother Trope Across Cultures

The Origin of the Wicked Stepmother Myth and Why It’s So Popular

Livia might have been one of the first evil stepmoms noted in our history, but she’s not the only one. In cultures across the globe, the trope of the wicked stepmother echoes in folk tales describing toxic female rivalry. In some regions of Asia and Africa, the evil second wife appears to torture the first wife, who was described as virtuous. In Europe, however, she appears as a wicked mother-in-law, stepmom, or sister.

Tatar considers the abundance of folktale stories containing stepmothers reflected reality. As a matter of fact, one in five children growing up in the Grimm brothers’ era lived with a stepparent and a biological one.

The Wicked Stepmother’s Modern Representation

Many of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales have become wildly popular and serve as the basis for many Disney movies. In many of them, the evil stepmother turns out not to be so wicked. Disney rehabilitates many of the figures denoted as ruthless and evil in the original stories. Evidently, modern society shifts the way we view these characters.

Tatar believes the change is positive. We no longer live in 19th-century Germany, so this figure no longer fits our lifestyle and culture. Our values are different. So, why shouldn’t we adapt stories to reflect that?