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Monday, November 27, 2017
Fairy Tales Are Much Older Than You Think
How does the same story come to be known as “Beauty and the Beast” in the U.S. and “The Fairy Serpent” in China?
As Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected Germanic folktales in the 19th century, they realized that many were similar to stories told in distant parts of the world. The brothers Grimm wondered whether plot similarities indicated a shared ancestry thousands of years old.
Folktales are passed down orally, obscuring their age and origin. “There’s no fossil record [of them] before the invention of writing,” says Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University.
To test the Grimms’ theory, Tehrani and literary scholar Sara Graça da Silva traced 76 basic plots back to their oldest linguistic ancestor using an international folktale database. If a similar tale was told in German and Hindi, the researchers concluded its roots lay in the languages’ last common ancestor. “The Smith and the Devil,” a story about a man who trades his soul for blacksmith skills, was first told some 6,000 years ago in Proto-Indo-European. Now we tell a similar tale about the blues guitarist Robert Johnson.