Changing the Letter, 1908, by Joseph Edward Southall / Birmingham Museums Trust

Why telling tales is the right thing to do!

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for presenters and public speakers to deliver a narrative, rather than drown their listeners in endless facts and figures.

Apart from it being far easier for the majority of us to follow than a list,  we remember so much more when the context is explained and the explanation allows us to use our imagination as listeners.  Sensory language is memorable language.

Chip and Dan Heath in their excellent book ‘Made to Stick’ refer to the ’stickiness’ or memorable qualities of stories.  ’A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ is not only a well-known proverb, the concept is easy to understand and easy to remember.

They asked how long it has been around.  They dated it back to one of Aesop’s fables, from 570 BC. That’s over 2,500 years.

That’s a long time.  That’s sticky.

How far back do these stories go?

The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.  However, new research has discovered proverbs which date from 5,000 years ago.  Even before English was a language.

Who are these researchers?

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon.

How did they do this?

They used techniques normally employed by biologists, studying links between stories from around the world and they found some had prehistoric roots. (1)

Some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

Jack and the Beanstalk, they say,  was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Beauty and the Beast (Illustration by Walter Crane) via Met Museum

Once upon a time…

A folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

A blacksmith strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being, such as the Devil, Death or a genie. The blacksmith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together. He then uses this power to stick the villain to an immovable object, such as a tree, to renege on his side of the bargain.

This basic plot exists throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia, according to the research. The study said this tale could be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European society when metallurgy likely existed and there was archaeological and genetic evidence of 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.

Does everyone agree?

Not everyone.   John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed doubt on the theory in Science News, saying the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was limited and the word “smith” might not have existed.

If true, that would mean the version of “The Smith and the Devil” used in the study may not be that old. However, Tahrani and Da Silva are confident in their findings.

How did these stories exist for so long?

The Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised in the nineteenth century, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Little Red Riding Hood (Illustration by Margaret W. Tarrant) via Prospect Magazine

Later, others challenged this, believing some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition, having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Dr Tehrani said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm. 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. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.

The researchers are confident that what they have found out is accurate.  They see stories passing through the generations rather like genetic material.  A good story is a good story and worth passing on.

Stories are memorable.  Think of that the next time you put together a presentation.


(1) The study, which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, employed phylogenetic methods to investigate the relationships between population histories and cultural phenomena, such as languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music.

It also used a “tree” of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.
Dr Tehrani explained to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods. This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence.

“We’ve excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so in that sense they embody their own history.

“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.”


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