A girl named Belle wears a yellow dress and dances with a beast as an enchanted teapot sings about the “tale as old as time.” That’s just one version of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairytale, of course, but it turns out that Mrs. Potts knew what she was talking about. According to a study published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal, fairytales are much older than we might have thought.
When we think about fairytales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are likely the experts that jump to mind. The brothers published a wide range of folktales in the 19th century, including popular titles like Cinderella and Snow White. Wilhelm Grimm claimed that the roots of these stories “are coterminous with those of the great race which is commonly called Indo-Germanic,” placing their beginnings alongside that of the Indo-European language family.
However, given that the earliest evidence of most fairytales appears when they were written down in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was difficult to prove Grimm’s theory. The study in question used a rather unique method to trace the oral tradition of the tales. The researchers employed a method developed for inferring evolutionary links between species by comparing their physical and genetic similarities and differences.
This phylogenetic method uses a branching diagram that looks like a tree to map plausible relationships between entities. Such trees had already been created to show relationships between the Indo-European languages. Using these trees, they took 275 folktales and studied their presence, or absence, in 50 different languages in order to track down common ancestry.
Sara Graça da Silva, folklorist and co-author of the study, said in an interview with the Guardian that “in oral tradition, folk tales are transmitted through spoken language, so a correlation might be expected; and also because both languages and folk tales are transmitted from generation to generation.” The results upheld Grimm’s belief that the stories had been passed orally for generations before being written down.
Some of the fairytales that we might be familiar with, including Beauty and the Beast and Rumplestiltskin, appear to link back to common language ancestors of anywhere between 2,500 and 6,000 years ago. Of course, the stories aren’t exactly the same in every language or culture. Beauty and the Beast belongs to a group of tales known as the Animal Bride, in which a woman marries a beast. In some versions, like the Disney one, the beast becomes human after she kisses him. In others, the woman ends up killing the beast.
One story, called the Smith and the Devil, seems to date back to the Bronze Age, at least 6,000 years ago. The plot of the story is that a blacksmith makes a deal with the Devil (or some other unfriendly being) that gives him the ability to wield any two materials together in exchange for his soul. The wily smith then uses his newfound ability to get out of the deal by welding his benefactor to something like a tree, thereby trapping him.
This study is changing the way researchers think about the origins of fairytales, causing some to reevaluate beliefs that these stories entered oral tradition only after being written down in recent centuries. It appears that Wilhelm Grimm, along with Mrs. Potts, was right. The fairytales that we know and love today have been cherished and passed down for thousands of years, making them truly “as old as time.”
What’s your favorite fairytale?
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Featured image via Wikipedia
h/t The Guardian