An article from the Atlantic Monthly making the rounds of the Internet has made the claim that "scientists" have proven some folk tales go back thousands of years.
The original "Little Red Riding Hood" apparently goes back "2,000 years" to somewhere "between Europe and the Middle East." (Where would that be? I thought those two places were connected.)
Fun, if true. But I want to sound a note of caution for all those who think that tracing the origin of stories is a scientific endeavor.
A long time ago I did a doctoral thesis on comparative mythology and religion, linking twins in the Bronze Age of the Near East with similar figures from Greece. I do think stories and beliefs get transferred between cultures.
But all of this study is extremely complex and highly speculative, and it is irresponsible to claim otherwise.
Comparative mythology and folklore as a scholarly study goes back a long way-- over two hundred years, in fact, and began shortly after scholars realized that language itself moves and changes in a predictable way through time. This study is called historical linguistics.
Linguistics has proven to be a much more fruitful-- and scientific-- area of investigation. How people pronounce, use, and interpret words can be observed and hypotheses can be tested.
Stories are of an order of magnitude more complex. Even just one detail of a story-- say, Cinderella's glass slipper, which has been famously studied in folklore-- can have a huge number of variants.
Think about putting together a whole set of details, plots, characters in just one story. In order to conclude that two "versions" or "variants" of a story are related to an "original" story, how much of the stories have to correspond? Seventy-five percent? Fifty percent? Less?
Most of the time the scholar's gut instinct rules. They want it to be so, and so it is.
Then there's the chicken and egg question. Of stories in disparate geographical areas that are deemed variants of an original story, which one came first? Which one influenced the other? Which one, so to speak, traveled to which place?
How do you even determine the original details of the original story?
These questions are highly vexed, because most folk tales are not originally written down, but told orally. Folktales that make it into print and thus are able to be studied cannot be scientifically proven to be any age at all. The only way to prove that a folktale existed in a certain time is if you have a text of it. So the only real scientific tool that a scholar has to determine the age of a story, and thus its ability to spread elsewhere, is absent.
Finally, you have the question of parallel generation. Given that human beings are very similar overall and have the same instincts of storytelling wherever they are, what is to stop a culture from imagining a story very similar to one in another, disparate culture? In this case, there is no transfer or traveling of tales at all. How can you tell apart the stories that grew up native, and those that immigrated?
In my work on twins, for example, I came upon scholars who were convinced that twin mythology in Greece ultimately went back to a common ancestor in the Indo-European homeland (perhaps south Russia) thousands of years before.
At the same time, anthropologists had unearthed stories and traditions remarkably similar to those of the Greek twins all over the globe.
With all these caveats in mind, I set out in my dissertation to suggest the possibility that cultural transfer of twin mythology and religion had occurred in a relatively small geographical area in a relatively short amount of time, with the encouraging support that the same type of phenomenon likely occurred with other mythological figures in the same period (Aphrodite, for example, very likely started her career in the Near East and came to Greece some time in or close after the Bronze Age).
There was no question of my being a "scientist" who could prove that a story had its origin somewhere as many as six thousand years ago, as the article claims for the story "The Smith and the Devil."
One final note of caution: historical and comparative mythology has a checkered past. In the late twentieth and early twentieth century, it was used to justify racist ideology, and it was a cornerstone of the Nazi master race theory. Some German scholars believed that Germany was the origin of the Indo-European people and language, and so all the beautiful and noble ancient works of literature in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit (all Indo-European languages) belonged to the original "Aryan" (a term used in Indo-European scholarship) race.
Other language families, especially the Semitic (which includes Hebrew) were inferior.
As soon as you decide that a story "originates" in a certain area, the possibility opens up that that "original" group of storytellers were somehow "better," because their story colonized, conquered, improved, civilized, or influenced another culture.
So, fun as it may be to imagine that folk tales go back to a certain date and time, that is all that is really happening: fun imagination. Unless it is racist imagination. Then it's not so fun.
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