Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’

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.


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.

Over the last few centuries, entrenched aristocracies have increasingly become a drag — inbred, arrogant, and generally useless. But there was a time when having aristocrats around was a good thing, because they were the major drivers of cultural innovation.

The reasons for this have to do with the interplay among leisure, disposable income, and the desire for novelty. Aristocrats tend to have way more than their share of the first two, which makes them extremely receptive to new games and toys, diversions and amusements, fads and fashions.

Up until the 18th century, most great art and music were produced either at the direction of or to curry favor with wealthy patrons. Even technological advances — like the steam engine or electricity — started out as gadgets to provide bored aristocrats with entertainment.

Ever since the French Revolution demonstrated that it was possible to do without them, aristocrats — and their corporate CEO successors — have become increasingly conservative and set in their ways. They worry that any sort of innovation will make their uselessness all the more apparent and fear that great art and music will stir up the lower orders and put notions in their heads. But once upon a time, things were very different.

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After writing a few days ago about how fairy tales may reflect the actual culture of roughly 4500 to 2500 BC, I got inspired to dig out my files on that period — and particularly on the times and places that don’t normally get into the history books.

When I was in school — and I doubt things have changed much since then — the beginnings of civilization were always pegged at around 3000 BC, with the emergence in Egypt and Sumeria of complex societies characterized by organized religion, monumental architecture, and writing.

The Harappan culture of the Indus Valley was also given an honorable mention in this story, though it was generally thought to have appeared several centuries later and to have been in some vaguely-defined way less innovative and influential than Egypt or Sumeria. But everyplace else was dismissed as crude and backwards — at most reflecting glimmers of influence from the three great river-valley civilizations — until some time after 2000 BC.

This picture of three major civilizations serving as lonely beacons of light in a sea of darkness was utter fantasy, of course. It grew out of late 19th and early 20th century prejudices, which regarded colonialism and monumental architecture as signs of evolutionary superiority, and was perpetuated into the second half of the 20th century by errors in carbon-14 dating.

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It always seem to be assumed that fairy tales are attached to no particular time and place — that they exist in an ideal land of make-believe that was invented for story purposes and never actually existed.

In fact, when I took a folklore course in college, the professor rather severely informed us that most fairy tales were written only a few hundred years ago, so they could not possibly retain any actual ancient elements.

I found that disappointing — but I also eventually found it unconvincing.

A story like “Cinderella” or “Snow White,” after all, seems to have very little to do with the late medieval / early modern world of chivalry and tournaments, of grand cathedrals and fanatical witch-hunters, of feudal loyalties and dynastic marriages, of royal bureaucracies and emerging nation-states, of printing presses and merchant bankers.

Instead, they appear to reflect an older and simpler organization of society — and they do so far too consistently to be the result of mere happenstance.

For example, there’s the multitude of independent petty kingdoms with which the fairy tale landscape seems to be littered, along with the extended stretches of savage wilderness which separate them. That’s not at all medieval — but it does seem to be the way things worked back when kingdoms were first invented.

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People who specialize in digging up human fossils tell us that until about 15-20 thousand years ago, we all looked very much alike. Back then, everyone on the planet apparently resembled present-day Australian aborigines, with broad faces and strongly pronounced features.

But after that, we started changing rapidly — at least on the surface. So-called racial distinctions appeared, distinctions that are usually regarded negatively because they make us look different from one another and now present barriers to global harmony. What is far less often noted is that those changes also made us prettier. All of us. Though each group adapted according to its own unique standards of beauty, in every region our facial contours became smoother and more delicate, our hair more appealing in form or color, our bodies sleeker and sexier.

There’s an easy explanation for that — the old Darwinian standby of sexual selection. In a simple tribal society, success at producing and raising offspring is largely determined by basic physical and mental fitness. But once society becomes just a bit more complex and distinctions of wealth and power appear, the game changes radically. The most dynamic and charismatic men take on leadership roles, which typically gives them the opportunity to father children by multiple women. The most attractive and charming women appeal to the top-ranked men, and that offers their own children a better chance to survive, become leaders in turn, and have first choice of mates.

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