On the Antiquity of Fairy Tales

on September 6, 2009

A few months back, I suggested here that fairy tales are far more ancient than generally acknowledged, and that rather than being just a few hundred years old they may date from around 3500-2500 BC.

So it’s nice to see that a new anthropological study has come to much the same conclusion. According to a story published today in the Telegraph:

Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world. …

Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.

He said: “Over time these folk tales have been subtly changed and have evolved just like an biological organism. Because many of them were not written down until much later, they have been misremembered or reinvented through hundreds of generations. …

“The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.” …

The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats.

Stories in Africa are closely related to this original tale, whilst stories from Japan, Korea, China and Burma form a sister group. Tales told in Iran and Nigeria were the closest relations of the modern European version.

I would definitely like to see a detailed account of this study, and I hope that the method will be applied to other folktales, as well, since it has the potential for illuminating many obscure channels of cultural transition.

The idea of a close link between Iran and Europe, for example, is particularly interesting, since I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that the Grail legend may be of Iranian origin and derive from what Omar Khayyam referred to (in Edward FitzGerald’s translation) as “Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup.”

For now, however, it’s simply nice to have confirmation that fairy tales — and the worldview they embody — really do have very deep roots.

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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One Response to “On the Antiquity of Fairy Tales”

  1. Scott says:

    I like your ideas and am also into prehistory. In particular, your post about fairy tales is interesting but you didn’t mention any of the old Victorian writers who explored this very topic in great depth. Robert Graves in “Greek Myths” and Frazer in “The Golden Bough” are both classics and hugely influential in their day, and highly readable as well. Another author that comes to mind is the lesser known Massey and his “Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World”; then there is also Joseph Campbell, who I haven’t read, but I believe has written several books about the prehistoric basis of ancient myths. Anyway, I thought I’d mention it, I’m going to read a few more posts. I particularly enjoyed your summary of early human migrations and their connections with various linguistic groups and archeological cultures. Scott

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