Fairy tales have been handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition in the form of bedtime stories, and nowadays through books and movies. Yes, we love to listen, read or watch them. But do you know how old are those many popular fairy tales you have heard, read or watched and have become very familiar with?
Researchers have found that fairy tales are a lot older than we thought – probably thousands of years old.
Folklorists have long assumed many fairy tales to be ancient. They assumed some stories were much older than the earliest literary records and classical mythology. However, researchers have found that many of them can be traced back thousands of years. They discovered that many were been told before English, French and Italian even existed as languages.
Fairy tales like ‘Beauty And The Beast’ and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ are said to be about 4,000 years old. It is said that ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ has originated around 2,000 years ago. ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is said to be 5,000 years old.
But what was the oldest fairy tale the researchers found?
A story called ‘The Smith and the Devil’ dating back to at least 6,000 years to the Bronze Age is believed to be the oldest fairy tale ever known.
The tale is about a blacksmith who sold his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities. The blacksmith strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being, exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together. He then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. (You can read the story here.)
In 2016, Durham University anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani and New University of Lisbon social scientist Sara Graça da Silva proved their theory with the same phylogenetic techniques scientists use to map evolutionary relationships between living organisms.
The duo mapped out ‘The Smith and the Devil’ on a tree of Indo-European languages, finding that it appears in a whopping total of 35 tongues. As the BBC explains, the tale’s basic plot was found to be “stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia.”
The study was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.