21 Jan 2016

Research Shows Fairy Tales Older Than Previously Thought

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The Smith and the Devil

The Guardian reports that new research methods have disclosed the ancient roots of classic European fairy tales.

Fairy stories such as Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin can be traced back thousands of years to prehistoric times, with one tale originating from the bronze age, academics have revealed.

Using techniques normally employed by biologists, they studied common links between 275 Indo-European fairy tales from around the world and found some have roots that are far older than previously known, and “long before the emergence of the literary record”.

While stories such as Beauty and the Beast and Rumplestiltskin were first written down in the 17th and 18th century, the researchers found they originated “significantly earlier”. “Both tales can be securely traced back to the emergence of the major western Indo-European subfamilies as distinct lineages between 2,500 and 6,000 years ago,” they write.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graça da Silva, from New University of Lisbon, believed the research – published in the Royal Society Open Science journal – has answered a question about our cultural heritage. …

Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.”

Analysis showed Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when eastern and western Indo-European languages split – more than 5,000 years ago. Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. A folk tale called The Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age.

The story, which involves a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the devil in order to gain supernatural ability, then tricking the evil power, is not so well known today, but its theme of a Faustian pact is familiar to many.

The study employed phylogenetic analysis, which was developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between species, and used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales on it, to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Tehrani said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

Da Silva believes the stories endure thanks to “the power of storytelling and magic from time immemorial”.

2 Feedbacks on "Research Shows Fairy Tales Older Than Previously Thought"


Lots of the Fairy tales come out the dark ages. Makes me consider if they are an attempt to retain our ancient history in oral fashion as many illiterate peoples have done.
Every human interaction, every case of right and wrong is revealed in a biblical truth (believers) or truism (others). There really is nothing new, especially about good and evil. When reading or watching a movie the protagonists and antagonist are pre-written characters from the dawn of history. Believe in the LORD or no, by reading the Holy Bible one can learn enormous amounts about oneself and human kind. From Shakespeare to Buffy the Vampire Slayer you would be well to know the original manuscript. And that funny feeling you get that something isn’t right, when you meet or talk to somebody. Yeah, knowing the bible helps with that too.

bob sykes

In his “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies,” (Oxford, 2012), EJM Witzel argues that some mythologies go back 10’s of thousands of years. He combines a comparison of the themes and elements of mythologies from around the world with modern estimates of when people migrated to certain areas.

He argues that there are two basic mythologies: an African/Australian one and an Eurasian/American one. The Eurasian/American mythology is dated to about 40,000 years ago. The African/Australian one is more like 100,000 years ago.

The book is a must read for anyone interested in human cultural evolution.


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