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Fairy Tales Are Much Older Than You Think

At least one has been traced back to the Bronze Age.

TALES AS OLD AS TIME

MODERN TAKES

THE SMITH AND THE DEVIL

FRIENDS IN LIFE AND DEATH

Friends in Life and Death

Originated 6,000 years ago

2,000 years ago

A dead man accepts Don

Juan’s invitation to a banquet

in exchange for Don Juan’s

attendance at another

event—in the underworld.

A blacksmith trades his soul to

the devil for the power to weld

any materials together. With his

wish granted, the man traps the

devil, sticking him to the ground

until the evil spirit releases him

from the bargain.

A man invites his dead friend to his

wedding. When the groom

accompanies his friend to the

underworld, 400 years pass and

he misses his own nuptials.

The Animal Bridegroom

In Disney’s Beauty and the

Beast, a witch’s curse traps the

prince in a beast’s body until

Belle’s love breaks the spell.

The Smith and the Devil

Fictional scholar Faust and

blues guitarist Robert

Johnson are among the

modern figures said to have

sold their souls to the devil

for knowledge.

A BOY STEALS THE

OGRE’S TREASURE

THE ANIMAL

BRIDEGROOM

4,500 years ago

 

3,000 years ago

A Boy Steals the

Ogre’s Treasure

Picking a rose lands a father in debt to a beast. In exchange for his freedom, his daughter is taken prisoner. After falling in love with the beast, she must overcome a curse to transform him into a prince.

A boy trespasses into a giant’s

house to steal his treasure.

When the giant comes home,

the boy hides and then

manages to evade the giant’s

pursuit. Finally the boy kills the

giant and takes his treasure.

Magic beans grow to great

heights in “Jack and the

Beanstalk,” allowing Jack to

climb up into a giant’s lair and

steal his treasures.

The Supernatural Helper

 

Trapped in an agreement to

give Rumpelstiltskin her first

child, a young queen

overhears him chanting his

name and gets out of the deal.

THE SUPERNATURAL HELPER

2,500 years ago

A peasant falsely tells the king his daughter can spin gold out of straw. An elfin creature appears, offering the real skill in exchange for her firstborn child. The only way out is to guess his name—which she does.

TALES AS

OLD AS TIME

THE SMITH AND THE DEVIL

Originated 6,000 years ago

A blacksmith trades his soul to the devil for the power to weld any materials together. With his

wish granted, the man traps the devil, sticking him to the ground until the evil spirit releases him

from the bargain.

MODERN TAKE

Fictional scholar Faust

and blues guitarist Robert Johnson

are among the modern figures said to

have sold their souls to the devil for knowledge.

A BOY STEALS THE OGRE’S TREASURE

4,500 years ago

 

A boy trespasses into a giant’s house to steal his treasure. When the giant comes home, the boy hides and then manages to evade the giant’s pursuit. Finally the boy kills the giant and takes

his treasure.

MODERN TAKE

Magic beans grow to

great heights in “Jack and the

Beanstalk,” allowing Jack to climb up

into a giant’s lair and steal his treasures.

THE ANIMAL BRIDEGROOM

3,000 years ago

Picking a rose lands a father in debt to a beast.

In exchange for his freedom, his daughter is taken

prisoner. After falling in love with the beast, she must overcome a curse to transform him into a prince.

MODERN TAKE

In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a witch’s curse traps the prince in a beast’s body until Belle’s love breaks the spell

FRIENDS IN LIFE AND DEATH

3,000 years ago

A man invites his dead friend to his wedding. When the groom accompanies his friend

to the underworld, 400

years pass and he

misses his own

nuptials.

MODERN TAKE

A dead man accepts Don Juan’s invitation to a banquet in exchange for Don Juan’s attendance at another event—in the underworld.

THE SUPERNATURAL HELPER

3,000 years ago

A peasant falsely tells the king his daughter can spin gold out of straw. An elfin creature appears, offering the real skill in exchange for her firstborn child. The only way out is to guess his name—which she does.

MODERN TAKE

Trapped in an agreement

to give Rumpelstiltskin her first

child, a young queen overhears him

chanting his name and gets out of the deal.

This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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.



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