Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Article, BBC News: Fairy Tale Origins Thousands of Years Old

An illustration of Beauty and the Beast
My friend sent me a link to this article from BBC News, Fairy Tale Origins Thousands of Years Old, Researchers Say. An Excerpt:

"Dr Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, 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."
In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.
Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition, having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Dr Jamie 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 that."
This article doesn't provide too many details beyond this (they reference a different article from Science News which basically says the same). They've used language analysis to do their studies, as opposed to the usual method of finding a tale referenced in writing. In a way it's no surprise to us that fairy tales existed, in some form, thousands of years ago. For example, we already know that "Beauty and the Beast" can be linked to "Cupid and Psyche" from the second century, and that that was probably based on oral tales. But according to the article, BATB is probably 3,000-4,000 years old. Yet the stories change so much over time, even "Cupid and Psyche" is significantly different than BATB. I wish the articles had more examples showing how they can be confident that these stories are "far older than the first literary evidence for them." Still, very interesting, and contradicts the literary source theory that Ruth Bottigheimer has put forth.
Illustrations by Walter Crane

UPDATE: Surlalune has posted on the CNN article which provides the link for the full study. I'm definitely not an expert in phylogenetic analysis and I probably wouldn't understand any of it anyway but I'll pretend it's because I haven't had enough coffee yet. If anyone wants to look it over and attempt to explain pertinent findings in layman's terms, please do! (I also don't feel too badly because Don Melvin, in the CNN article, humorously points out how wordy the study is)

UPDATE:  Zalka Csenge Virag also discussed the article on Multicolored Diary (and has far more intelligent, in depth things to say about the study than I!)

*Also, I've added a tag for fairy tale origins. It contains posts about the debate over ancient oral sources for fairy tales verses relatively recent literary sources, but also those theories about historical precedents for fairy tales, if you're interested!


  1. Imho not that surprising. Scholars have already theorized that certain fairytales are older than their written history. For example there is evidence of beliefs like animism and shamanism that doesn't make sense in a christian context in tales like Cinderella, where in some versions her mother after her death gets reborn as a cow or goat and the aimal gets reborn as a tree after its death. Now it seems like there's finally proof that more than a few tales are a few thousand years old.

    That the reasearches "come dowen with Wilhelm Grimm" makes for a catchy hook, but is slightly misleading. Wilhelm Grimm believed that fairy tales were "sunken myths", i.e. religious stories that lost their religious significance when the region they were based on was replced with another, which made the stories change. While this is surely true for some tales, nothing in the article suggests (and I personally don't find it very plausible) that all fairy talesare based on mythology.

    Also the Grimm's only looked for parralells to fairy tales in Norse (and very rarely Greek) Mythology, believing that the German tales were based on German(ic) sources, while the study was concerned with the whole Indo-European language area and the notion that fairy tales are bound to a geographic region has become oudated long ago, with few exceptions.

    1. Didn't the Grimms also believe that fairy tales were passed down in perfectly preserved form, with no change in wording from telling to telling over the generations?

      Most folktales, it seems, are thought to be based on oral tales that came before the first literary source, but it would have been nice to see examples of why it is thought that. Or how they determine which ancient stories are the same story that's been passed down yet altered, verses a story that happens to be slightly similar, because obviously those are going to happen

    2. Re the Grimms, to be fair to the author, I don't think they were saying that the Grimms were right in everything they thought; but that in the instance of fairy tale age/origins they were more right than some recent scholars have supposed

  2. Well... Many of these issues are not really new: 
    1/ strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance.
    2/ oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record,
    3/ statistical evidence that many tales can be traced back to the Neolithic or further
    4/ stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.
    See: (peer reviewed paper, where Julien d'Huy get the same results) and, for an early phylogenetic approach of folktales (before the publication of the first Tehrani's paper on this subject):
    It is a shame that journalists speak english only and / or may not do real researches for their paper!

    1. Interesting. It is kind of crazy to contemplate how language barriers keep knowledge contained, even today! I'm still trying to wrap my head around how language evolution can be used to prove how old certain stories are, but I guess I'll trust the experts...especially if they're all coming to the same conclusions

  3. This is fascinating stuff! I have now finished reading the original article, which, as you point out, is not written for the lay person. The conclusions are intriguing, but I wish I understood exactly how they arrived at them. Whether not enough coffee, or not enough scientific expertise, there was a lot about their methods I didn't get. Apparently I need to go back to school. But I'm so excited that this research is being done, because I often wonder about the origins of these tales and the connections between them.

    1. Very impressed you read the full study! And kind of glad I didn't try if the methods are still something my wee brain can't comprehend.

      Loved your story in Frozen Fairy Tales, by the way!

    2. Thank you so much!!

      Everything I have read so far on that study seems to include people saying they don't really understand the methods used, so apparently it's pretty specific to the authors' field of study....