Some European fairy tales can be dated to the Bronze Age

A new computer modelling analysis of European fairy tales claims to have found one or two that date to the Bronze Age. Like all ‘big computing’ modelling of complex systems with limited and skewed data inputs, the findings should probably be treated with strong caution. The researchers also applied their model only to a subset of story types, the “Tales of Magic” from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales. But their key finding on age is rather interesting, nonetheless…

“Our findings regarding the origins of ATU 330 ‘The Smith and the Devil’ are a case in point. 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 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.” [this it seems, actually refers to the sub-variant of 330, 330A]

“a Bronze Age origin for ATU 330 [‘The Smith and the Devil’] seems plausible under both major models of Indo-European prehistory [i.e.:. competing theories that complex metal-working was brought into Europe with large migrations from either the Pontic-Caspian steppe (north-east of the Black Sea) or from Anatolia (south of the Black Sea)].”

Arthur_Rackham

ATU 328 “The Boy Steals the Ogre’s Treasure” (the basis of “Jack and the Beanstalk”) is a story nearly as ancient, according to the model, and was presumably a story type that emerged when complex metallurgy enabled newly-portable treasure hoards, along with new trade routes that imported cut gem-stones.

Though not tested by the researchers, because not magical, I’d imagine that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is perhaps even more archaic. Due to its shepherding subject matter it quite possibly pre-dates the emergence of complex metallurgy.

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