Many well-loved fairy tales predate the Bible, Greek and Roman myths, and many current European languages and world religions, a new study has found.
The Brothers Grimm collected fairy tales back in the 19th century, but it appears that these stories date back not only hundreds, but even thousands of years. There is even a possibility that they have influenced the Bible, Greek and Roman mythological writings, and other works of religion.
Study co-author and anthropology professor Jamshid Tehrani from Durham University said that stories of “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have likely existed before numerous modern European languages did. That includes languages like English, German, French, and Russian.
“[They] would have originally been told in a now extinct ancestral language from which those tongues evolved," Tehrani explained, adding that they are estimating about 4,000 to 6,000 years old.
Tehrani and study co-author Sara Graça da Silva, a folklorist from the New University of Lisbon, probed whether 275 Indo-European fairy tales tended to be spread among closely tied population groups than more distantly related ones. They looked at how and whether the tale-sharing could be determined by the geographical proximity of the populations and how closely similar their languages are.
The process that separated the effects of tales moving between neighboring segments from tales inherited from common ancestral segments narrowed the focus to 76 tales, whose movement could be explained through common heritage.
The researchers then put the 76 stories into a so-called “family tree” of Indo-European tongues to gauge how far back the stories go – a mathematical technique used by biologists to reconstruct how genetically transferred traits evolve.
“The Smith and the Devil” – where a blacksmith sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to weld materials together, but eventually tricks him – emerged as one of the oldest tales and has been traced back 6,000 years to the Indo-European languages’ Bronze Age predecessors.
“Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” were traced back 4,000 years, even though they were written down in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“Jack and the Beanstalk,” on the other hand, appeared to be from about 5,000 years past.
“They are older than the English language and would have been first told in one that is now extinct,” added Dr. Tehrani in a separate interview.
The findings, according to him, agree with the argument of Wilhelm Grimm that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob collected and first saw print in 1812 were rooted in ancient cultures. Many scholars did not agree with Wilhelm’s hypothesis.
The findings were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Photo: Raelene Gutierrez | Flickr