Once Upon a Time a Story Was Told

1916 illustration for ‘The Smith and the Devil’ story

Logic suggests there has to have been a first time told for every story. (Prehistoric ancestors crouching around a fire come immediately to mind.) But just how long ago might that have been? Anthropologists in this field struggle with far less evidence than their colleagues in archaeology, who have the luxury to examine bones, tools and potsherds.

Scarcity of evidence, however, never stopped a determined scholar. A 2016 paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science nominated The Smith and the Devil as the world’s oldest story. This tale is an upbeat version of the more familiar Faust legend, which has formed the basis for plays, operas and films. Faust cuts a deal with the Devil so that he enjoys special powers for a set number of years, after which the Devil gets his soul. Dumb move.

The Smith and the Devil, according to the paper, is the oldest story, having a provenance going back 6,000 years. The blacksmith protagonist, wiser than Faust, trades his soul to the Devil for the power to weld any materials together. He then turns this power against the Devil, pinning him to a tree or other sturdy structure. Hailing from the Bronze Age in Asia Minor, the basic plot has been told from India to Scandinavia in more than 35 Indo-European languages.

The paper’s authors, Durham University anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani in England and New University of Lisbon social scientist Sara Graça da Silva, utilized techniques of phylogenetics, which were developed by biologists to study evolutionary relationships between living organisms. Treating each tale as a species that mutates over the millennia, Tehrani and da Silva mapped the stories onto the tree of Indo-European languages.

They found that Jack and the Beanstalk stems from a group of stories categorized as “The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure,” which they traced back to more than 5,000 years, the time when eastern and western Indo-European languages diverged. Their work dated Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to about 4,000 years old.

Tehrani and da Silva’s research traced the Smith and the Devil back to a proto-Indo-European society when metallurgy likely existed and archaeological and genetic evidence points to massive territorial expansions by nomadic tribes from the Pontic steppe (the northern shores of the Black Sea) between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.

On a BBC Radio 4 program Dr. Tehrani explained his and Dr. da Silva’s research process: “We’ve excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance. . . By comparing the folk tales that we find in different cultures and knowing something about the historical relationships among those cultures, we can make inferences about the stories that would have been told by their common ancestors.”

Dr. Tehrani said “We find it pretty remarkable that these stories have survived without being written. . . They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

In the 19th century, the brothers Grimm and other collectors of folklore suspected that many of the fairy tales they popularized, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were part of a shared cultural history dating back to prehistory. Later thinkers challenged that view, arguing some stories were newer and had migrated into an oral tradition after being recorded by writers from the 16th and 17th centuries. Dr. Tehrani and his colleague come down firmly on the side of the Grimms. “Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that,” Dr. Tehrani said.

We can admire the vintage of those classic stories we were told as children, and which we in turn share with our little ones. As we do so, however, we should always keep an eye out for that conniving Devil and never, under any circumstance, make a deal with the guy.

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