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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fairytales much older than previously thought, say researchers

Photo: Alison Flood
"Fairytales much older than previously thought, say researchers" insist Alison Flood, writer on and former news editor of the Bookseller."

"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. Photograph: Durham University/PA

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. 

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.

Da Silva told the Guardian that the origin of folk tales was one of the “biggest mysteries” in folk tale studies, with its reconstruction “often frustrated not only by difficulties in defining the genre but also as a result of the rich interplay between oral and written traditions”. The new method of mapping the stories through common languages and geographical proximity worked, “because in oral tradition, folk tales are transmitted through spoken language, so a correlation might be expected; and also because both languages and folk tales are transmitted from generation to generation.”

Tehrani said their study agreed with Grimm’s theory: “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.
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Source: The Guardian