Older Than You Think

Snow White

While most of the better-known fairy tales in popular culture, such as Snow White, were collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, many of them could actually be much older.

Fairy tales are a timeless part of our pop culture: for generations now, we’ve grown up with stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumplestiltskin”.  Yet for all their timelessness, these fairy tales might be even older than we think; new research has opened up the possibility that popular folk tales have influenced writings in Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible and other religious works, negating the traditional view that most traditional fairy tales originated in the modern era.

The researchers have stated that versions of classic fairy tales have been around since before the advent of modern languages, and in some cases could be between 4,000 and 6,000 years old!  The researchers investigated whether 275 fairy tales from Indo-European mythology were more likely to be shared by closely-related populations than more distantly-related ones, testing whether the sharing of tales could be predicted by how close populations were geographically or by how related their languages are.  This process allowed researchers to separate the effects of tales traveling between neighboring groups from tales that had been inherited from common ancestral groups, which narrowed the number of tales down to 76 whose distributions could be primarily explained by common heritage.

After narrowing down these 76 tales, the researchers mapped the 76 tales on a “family tree” of Indo-European languages to see how far they could be traced back, using the same techniques that biologists use to reconstruct the evolution of genetically inherited traits.  One of the oldest tales was determined to be “the smith and the devil”, in which a blacksmith sells his soul to an evil spirit in return for exceptional skill in smithing, and was traced back to the Bronze Age.  The age of this tale and its subject help to resolve a long-standing issue among historians; it was previously believed that Indo-European languages originated before metallurgy, but the researchers now think that this is highly unlikely.

The researchers have credited the lasting appeal of these stories on the focus on magic and miracles, which has always fascinated humans from around the world; take, for instance, the interest in jedi, wizards and time machines that endures to this day.  The tensions in these stories also reflect such universal conflicts as love and good versus evil.

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