Classic fairy tales may actually be much more ancient than previously expected, some of them dating back to thousands of years ago.
This dazzling conclusion was reached by Jamshid Tehrani, anthropologist at Durham University, and Sara Graça da Silva, folklorist and social scientist at the New University of Lisbon.
In a study featured in the Royal Society Open Science journal, the scientists present an in-depth analysis of story themes taken from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) classification.
The ATU system groups folk tales based on their topics, having identified over 2,000 basic plots that apply to nearly fantasy.
Tales of Magic for instance represent the largest category, including around 450 major narratives. Fairy tales in this section feature supernatural protagonists, relatives, antagonists, sidekicks, as well as magic objects, superpowers and apparently impossible tasks.
After thoroughly investigating this category, researchers developed phylogenetic trees for each type of children’s story.
Such diagrams are normally used by biologists in order to illustrate the way various species are related together, and how they have emerged from a common ancestor, following a lengthy process of evolution.
By adapting phylogeny to magic fairy tales, study authors discovered that 76 of these story plots actually emerged hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and were transmitted orally, from generation to generation, until they were eventually collected and published by philologists such as the Grimm Brothers.
This had previously been suggested by Wilhelm Grimm himself, who claimed that some of the stories he and his sibling brought to light back in 1812 may date from ancient times, as part of an extensive oral tradition, spanning across continents.
The theory stirred controversy and was promptly rejected by his contemporaries, only to be proven correct in this new research.
For example, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” are between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, having appeared just when Indo-European languages were beginning to crystallize.
Also, “Little Red Riding Hood” is around 2,000 years old, having first been recounted in a region located somewhere between the Middle East and Europe.
That’s why there are so many version of it throughout the world, some featuring leopards or tigers instead of wolves, or including different protagonists, such as a group of sisters or a girl and her male sibling.
Apparently, the most ancient story, known as “The Smith and the Devil”, dates back to approximately 6,000 years ago, and was actually first told by our ancestors from the Bronze Age.
The fairy tale, which is much older than Christianity, Greek myths and even human writing, refers to a blacksmith who makes a pact with the Devil, offering him his soul in return for unparalleled skills at forging metal.
Eventually, the cunning artisan manages to keep his newly gained, unsurpassed talent, and also his soul, as he uses his welding powers in order to vanquish the evil spirit and keep it trapped for eternity.
As researchers explain, the narrative is associated with the Proto-Indo-European language, which was the predecessor for modern language families such as Italic, Celtic, Indo-Iranian, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Hellenic, Armenian and Albanian.
The identity of those who spoke this ancient dialect had remained shrouded in mystery, the two most common theories suggesting that the natives were either farmers that inhabited Turkey around 9,000 years ago, or Russian steppe inhabitants, who had been able to master metalworking around 6,000 years ago.
Given that the story is centered around a blacksmith, it’s much more likely that the latter hypothesis is actually the valid one.
This conclusion however has been rejected by other folklorists such as John Lindow from the University of California, Berkeley who have argued that the Pro-Indo-European language didn’t actually have sufficient words related to metal forging at the time.
Study authors on the other hand remain firm in their conviction that “The Smith and the Devil” is indeed 6,000 years old, explaining that they have traced its origins by analyzing it just like biologists examine the tree of life.
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