In the realm of myth and pop culture, the audience often sees characters with ordinary and mundane items. But as the story moves, these items grow to mean something more. Hence, they take on a “magical” quality. A good example of an ordinary item is shoes. How can such an item begin to take on its own magic? What does that mean for the hero of the story? How does it relate to the human condition?
In ancient times, shoes were a symbol of authority, guardianship, and domain. The reason for this is simple. Not everyone could afford a horse, but everyone could have shoes. A person, whether lord or peasant, would walk the span of their land in their shoes. Shoes were very personal. They were custom made by shoemakers, not mass produced like they are today. This is how shoes came to reflect attributes of a person’s authority over their personal domain.
In an old marriage ritual from the middle ages, the father of the bride removed the bride’s shoes and gave them to the groom. Then, the groom replaced the shoes back on her feet. Finally, when the groom carried his bride across the threshold of the home, he removed the shoes and put them in the rafters of the house or around the hearth, sometimes even walling them up. This practice was to symbolize authority, guardianship, and domain over the safety of the home and the family. It was also believed to protect the home from evil spirits and influences.
The importance of shoes can be found in myths, fairytale, folklore, and superstitions throughout history and around the world. In the Bible, Boaz cannot marry Ruth until he receives the left shoe of his uncle. Cinderella’s shoes must be returned to her so the prince can marry her. In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, the wife of Hans the Hedgehog cannot have her husband back until she wears out three pairs of iron shoes. As a punishment, Snow White’s wicked stepmother was forced to dance in white-hot iron shoes at the wedding. In The Tenth Kingdom, the troll king has a pair of magic shoes. Even Sherlock Holmes keeps the left slipper of a Persian woman atop his fireplace mantle to store his tobacco in the toe.
Shoes represent the hero’s authority, guardianship, and domain of self. This is the hero’s confidence in themselves and their abilities. They know their identity, value, belonging, and purpose within their personal domain. The hero is the master of their skills and knowledge in their own reality. Thus, they aren’t just a hero for others; they are first and foremost a hero to themselves. And a hero needs their shoes.
Ultimately, every hero will experience “the fall.” The fall refers to plot and the inevitable loss a character will face. It could be their super strength, their secret lair, a power suit, or a significant relationship. The hero will experience tragic loss that will shake their personality and bring into question everything they have done. Then, the hero must make a sacrifice to bring back the balance. Consequently, the hero will sacrifice himself to satisfy the needs of the many.
Then, the metaphorical shoes will bring them back. The authority, guardianship, and domain of their personal self will lift them from their fall. The hero will save themselves from their loss. They will use mastery of skills and knowledge to help themselves. In addition, their confidence will return, and faith and hope in their moral compass will compel them to return on their journey. That is what makes the shoes magical.
The Need for Shoes
If we are all heroes of our own story, then we all need shoes. Our shoes represent how we belong to ourselves. With this basic foundation block, we can find our relation to others and our world. These firmly set beliefs will begin the myth in our personal journey and start our story towards how we excelled and conquered the human condition.
Read more in our Myth in Pop Culture series here.