Fairytales much older than previously thought, say researchers
Study of fairy story origins traces some back thousands of years, with one tale dating back as far as bronze age
Illustration of Beauty and the Beast, one of the fairytales believed to date from thousands of years ago.
Illustration of Beauty and the Beast, one of the fairytales believed to d
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 stories from around the world and found some have roots that are far older than previously known.
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.
These stories have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed
Dr Jamie Tehrani
In the 19th century Wilhelm Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, believed many of the fairy stories they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.
But later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger, and passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tehrani said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.
“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
The academic said 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.
Analysis showed Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. And 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.”
Fairytales often have themes common to humans throughout the world and through all ages, such as family, betrayal, violence and survival, he said.
And he said we enjoy the magical element, explaining: “I think it is human nature to think about that territory about the edges of what is possible and impossible.”