Tracing the Ancient Roots of Fairy Tales

A few hundred years ago, fairy tale auteurs like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen brought magical tales of princesses, evil ogres, dark forests and weird spells into the storybooks of children. But how old are the tales they transcribed? A new study suggests that their origins go all the way back to prehistory.

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture.

Using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, a kind of über index that breaks fairy tales down into groups like “the obstinate wife learns to obey” and “partnership between man and ogre,” the team tracked the presence of the tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations. They were able to find the ancestries of 76 tales, tracking them backward using language trees.

Read More at Smithsonian

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