Once upon a time…..?

Folklore, and the age and origins of stories, has been very much in the public eye today. Look across twitter, news sites, and other social media you’ll see repeated the fascinating article relating to the research findings of Sara Gra├ža da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani relating to the origins of 275 Indo-European fairy tales (if you missed it a summary can be seen here, and the full paper from Royal Society Open Science journal).

The paper is an interesting one, and I would love a chance to discuss it with the authors. I have (more crudely without the use of the Bayesian analysis) seen elements of what they describe as “deep signatures”, indeed last spring I presented at two conferences an example of where stories have evolved and could be ‘regressed’ back (although nothing like the 6,000 years estimated in the Da Silva and Tehrani paper). I think to most lovers of stories the findings of this paper would come as no surprise. Although as a nervy archaeologist I have to admit that I would be hesitant to assign such an early date with confidence, it is not at all inconceivable and I certainly have no doubt of long endurance of key folk motifs and the strength of oral traditions to convey ideas across multiple generations.

But what more could this tell us? The basic driving fears, concerns, and desires present with our ancestors are played out in the stories created, the monster in the dark, the wicked witch. But why where they used in the first place? Is it just a good story, or something more?

My own research interests relating to folklore have really been more than just the stories themselves, but why certain stories survive, and why some are more readily altered and changed, and for what reason; more importantly in what cultural and social environments does this change occur.

I have seen evidence of the use of stories to undermined the validity of certain classes of people by altering stories that have a long antecedence to reflect the political concerns of the time. Folklore coupled with visual archaeological moments acting as a mechanism to convert to new religious teaching (think in the same way as stained glass within a church tells a story).

The voices of the past are echoing out through these stories, and using other sources, be that archaeological, environmental, or historical I believe we can start to tease out far more than just stories of devils and witches, but start to see the perceptions and motivations of those in the past, and bring into focus the storytellers.