Ancient Europeans had a long tradition of oral storytelling before they had a written language, it turns out.
Researchers from New University of Lisbon and Durham University have published new evidence to support the theory that some common fairy tales date back thousands of years. The study found at least one story, “The Smith and the Devil,” that likely dates to the Bronze Age.
“The basic plot of this tale — which is stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia — concerns a blacksmith who strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being (e.g. the Devil, Death, a jinn, etc.)” the authors write. “The smith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together, which he then uses to stick the villain to an immovable object (e.g. a tree) to renege on his side of the bargain.”
The story dates back some 6,000 years, when the last common ancestor of the Indo-European language group roamed. The finding gives support to the theory that Proto-Indo-Europeans had a culture of metallurgy, which remains a subject of academic debate.
No other fairy tales that the researchers examined went back as far, but some, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Name of the Supernatural Helper” (i.e. Rumpelstiltskin) were traced back between 2,500 and 6,000 years, when major language groups branched off.
The researchers borrowed their methods from the field of biology, using phylogenetic analysis to reconstruct the family tree of a given fairy tale. By correlating language progeny with the presence or absence of a given story, they could determine the probability that the tale has been passed down through generations, rather than transferred horizontally through cultural exchange.
It won’t surprise members of today’s oral cultures that stories can survive for so long with the basic plot unchanged. Nonetheless, some academics dispute that modern folk tales could have a history much deeper than the written record. The study’s authors write: “Some literary scholars have claimed that there is very little evidence to support the precedence of oral traditions over literary ones and argued that it is unlikely that these stories could have been transmitted intact for so many generations without the support of written texts.”
Wilhelm Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) himself argued that the folktales he compiled with his brother in 1884 were of ancient heritage. “It is my belief that the German stories do not belong to the northern and southern parts of our fatherland alone but that they are the absolutely common property of the nearly related Dutch, English, and Scandinavians,” he once wrote.
What would these Proto-Indo-European stories have sounded like? Here’s the best guess of University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd, telling a tale of a king who wanted a son, prayed for a son, and was granted his wish.