The Oldest Surviving Tale Ever Told in Europe

The Smith and the Devil and the Ancient Roots of Fairy Tales

Today’s fairy tales, both in written and oral form, are much older than we once thought. They include well-known stories that have been shared over many generations, dating back to a time before writing was even invented. These tales give us insight into the lives and cultures of ancient societies, showing what people valued and believed in. Their lasting popularity comes from their universal themes and characters, which help connect us across different eras and languages.

Related articles: Chinese Folklore; Italian Folklore; On Kekulé’s Dream

A study published in the Royal Society Open Journal by anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani from Durham University, UK, and folklore scholar Sara Graça da Silva from the University of Lisbon, analyzed 275 fairy tales from around the world. They traced recurring patterns across languages and cultures. The authors found that these oral traditions likely originated before the advent of writing. They demonstrated that one tale, “The Smith and the Devil,” dates back to the Bronze Age (3500-1200 BC). Using phylogenetic methods typically applied in biology, they followed the diversification of tale types as categorized in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index. Tehrani told The Guardian that it’s fascinating these stories survived without being written and were likely told in an extinct Indo-European language. Tehrani and da Silva suggest that tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” found in various forms across Europe, originated about 5,000 years ago with the division of Indo-European languages. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rapunzel” are believed to be about a millennium younger. The oldest tale, “The Smith and the Devil,” over 6,000 years old, features variations where the Devil becomes Death or even Saint Peter and Jesus, influencing works like Goethe’s “Faust.”

The study of how folktales intertwine with the historical trajectories of human populations occupies a critical place in cultural history. Folktales are cultural artifacts that reflect the movements, interactions, and evolutions of the people who tell them. This aspect of folklore study is particularly fascinating because it sheds light on how cultural elements survive and transform over time, often mirroring the changes in the societies that created them.

The work of Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani focuses on the ancestral roots of Indo-European folktales, examining how these stories have evolved over thousands of years. The research involves analyzing the tales alongside the documented histories of Indo-European-speaking populations, including their migrations, interactions, and linguistic developments. 

One of the most groundbreaking aspects of da Silva and Tehrani’s work is how it challenges long-standing beliefs about the origins of folktales. Traditionally, it has been difficult to trace the origins of these stories due to their oral nature and the lack of written records. However, by employing phylogenetic methods, da Silva and Tehrani have been able to provide evidence that some tales may have origins much older than previously believed, potentially dating back to the Bronze Age.

Wilhelm Grimm’s Perspective on Folktales

Wilhelm Grimm, along with his brother Jacob Grimm, holds a foundational place in the field of folklore studies. Their compilation of German tales, known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, is a significant source for understanding the broader cultural spectrum of Indo-European narratives. Wilhelm Grimm developed a theory suggesting that these tales were not isolated within the German cultural sphere but were instead part of a much wider Indo-European tradition. 

Grimm’s hypothesis proposed a cultural continuum that extended across a vast geographical area, from Scandinavia in the North to South Asia in the East. This idea was revolutionary in highlighting the shared heritage and interconnectedness of Indo-European languages and their corresponding folklore. Grimm suggested that these tales, though varying in their regional expressions, shared common roots and motifs, reflecting a shared ancient heritage that transcended national and linguistic boundaries.

Horizontal Transmission vs Oral Tradition of Folktales

Tracing the origins of folktales is challenging due to their horizontal transmission, where tales spread between societies through trade, conquest, or literature. This spread leads to adaptations, obscuring original meanings and disrupting patterns of common heritage envisioned by early folklorists like Wilhelm Grimm. Folktales’ oral tradition, with stories evolving over generations, lacks original versions, making it hard to pinpoint their historical origin. This evolving nature reflects the changing cultures, adding to the difficulty in establishing definitive origins. Scholars debate the actual age of traditional tales. Some, following the Grimm brothers, argue for their ancient roots, while others view many fairy tales as relatively modern, emerging when first written.

Another important aspect of their research was exploring the relationship between the distribution of folktales and genetic, linguistic, or geographical associations among populations. For instance, they examined whether the presence of certain tales correlated more strongly with linguistic similarities between populations rather than their geographical proximity. 

A notable example from their study is the tale of “The Smith and the Devil“. By analyzing its distribution and variants across different Indo-European cultures, da Silva and Tehrani were able to trace its origins back to the Bronze Age. This was a significant finding, as it provided evidence that this particular tale predates the literary record, challenging the notion that it was a later literary creation.

The Smith and the Devil

The Smith and the Devil is a fairy tale that has been a part of Indo-European folklore for centuries. The core of the story revolves around a blacksmith who makes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being. This being is depicted differently in various versions of the tale – sometimes as the Devil, other times as Death, a demon, or even a genie.

The essence of the pact in the story is that the smith agrees to surrender his soul in exchange for a remarkable ability: the power to weld any materials together. This unique ability is what sets the stage for the twist in the tale.

Using his newfound power, the blacksmith devises a clever plan to outwit the supernatural entity. He does this by using his power to weld the entity to an immovable object, such as a tree or a rock. By doing so, the blacksmith traps the being, effectively breaking the pact and saving his soul from damnation.

The narrative of “The Smith and the Devil” is not just a simple folktale; it resonates with deeper themes of cunning, the consequences of dealing with malevolent forces, and the triumph of human ingenuity over supernatural powers.

The Smith and the Devil has notably influenced many other stories and myths. One prominent example is Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Faust, the main character makes a deal with the devil, which is a direct parallel to the blacksmith’s pact in “The Smith and the Devil.” This connection highlights a common theme in storytelling: the consequences of making deals with evil forces.

The setting of the tale, a forge, has also influenced cultural ideas about Hell. The image of a blacksmith working in a hot, fiery environment may have helped shape early ideas of Hell as a place of fire and suffering.

George Monbiot notes that in folklore across Europe and beyond, the blacksmith often appears as a motif linked with malevolence. This imagery, which may have influenced medieval conceptions of Hell, portrays the smith at his forge. Various folktales narrate stories of smiths making deals with the devil to acquire fire and the skills of metal smelting.

The presence of “The Smith and the Devil” in the ancestral heritage of Indo-European cultures suggests early knowledge of metallurgy in Proto-Indo-European society. This aligns with the ‘Kurgan hypothesis,’ which connects the Indo-European language family’s origins to nomadic tribes from the Pontic steppe around 5000–6000 years ago, known for their Bronze Age technology. This hypothesis contrasts with the ‘Anatolian hypothesis,’ which posits an earlier, gradual spread of Indo-European languages linked to Neolithic agriculture, predating metallurgy. However, some models suggest overlap between these hypotheses, making a Bronze Age origin for the tale plausible in both scenarios.

Topics: Bronze Age origins of folklore, Wilhelm Grimm’s theory on European tales, phylogenetic analysis in folklore research, cross-cultural transmission of fairy tales, impact of oral tradition on folk narratives, historical evolution of “The Smith and the Devil” tale, cultural anthropology in fairy tales, interconnection between language and folklore in Indo-European societies

Last Updated on April 30, 2024 by retrofuturista

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