Why Rumpelstiltskin could be 4,000 years old


Image: Pixabay

We’ve all heard of the Brothers Grimm, haven’t we?

You know. They were those clever German academics, those collectors of folk and faerie tales who gathered and published many of the dark and twisty stories Disney has gone on to sanitise, romanticise and package in clean, neat merchandising-heavy boxes.

I wonder whether the brothers would recognise their characters in the theme park friendly tales Disney has produced over the years? I’m pretty sure there’s less chirpy cleaning with the help of woodland pals and more hacking up predatory strangers with axes in the originals.

I say ‘orginals’ quite wrongly, of course. I’ve mentioned here before how the brothers altered and edited the stories, omitting entire tales from later editions because their themes were deemed unsuitable for young readers. So, I shouldn’t really condemn Disney for responding to the times exactly as the Grimm’s did years ago.

And yet, as the global theme park mongers seem to be almost solely responsible for little girls wanting to be princesses more than they want to be physicists, neuro-surgeons, architects, democratically elected heads of state and anything else remotely useful, I still bear a grudge.

‘Never trust a movie studio empire that believes we should remove male nipples,’ as my old nan used to say.* 

Well, almost two hundred years ago Wilhelm – the brother who shaped many of the stories’ structure and content – reckoned that some of them dated to the beginnings of Indo-European languages. Many theorists disagreed with this idea, saying the stories developed much later.

But a recent study by a Durham University anthropolgist and a folklorist from Lisbon suggests that Grimm may have been right. They’ve used a technique called phylogenetic analysis (no, me neither) which maps stories through language and geography.

I don’t know how the technique works. I’m no anthropologist and I’m no linguist like Wilhelm Grimm was. But I do know this is exciting stuff.

It means that the roots of Jack and the Beanstalk could stretch back over 5,000 years: that Rumplestilskin and Beauty and the Beast could be 4,000 years old. There’s a folk tale called The Smith and the Devil which could be as much as 6,000 years old.

I love this idea.

It means the best and strongest stories behave like genes, getting themselves passed through generations – orally for centuries until some bright spark thinks to write them down – spreading over time, perhaps mutating a little along the way, honing themselves into the perfect shape to be loved and remembered and handed on.

It shows these yarns are organic : it’s the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle applied to stories.

It’s a beautiful, elegant idea and gives us a direct link to our Bronze Age ancesters, sitting around the campfire, spinning tales that would scare and delight the listeners and reveal a little something about the world along the way.

Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

‘Once upon a time …’ 


*No, alright, she didn’t say that at all. But it’s true that Disney in their wisdom did not give Aladdin nipples. I know they’re useless, but are male nipples so threatening?







40 thoughts on “Why Rumpelstiltskin could be 4,000 years old

  1. This is such an interesting post! 😊 It’s so exciting to think of stories as genes, passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years! Thanks for sharing, that’s brightened up my day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks A.J! Yes, I loved the idea too. That feeling of continuity, of a shared history. Some of these stories are artefacts that can tell us how our ancestors viewed each other and the world – which lessons they thought were impotant to pass on to others. A direct link to ancient minds. Fascinating stuff

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just shows you can’t keep a good story down. One of the disservices of the nineteenth century rendition of traditional tales possibly left us with only parts of original story cycles. These cycles were collected and passed on for ‘healing’ purposes wherein one story led always to another until the issue was resolved. This may explain why we’ve ended up with the yarns that promulgate princess fetishes ( I can’t speak for the practice of male nipple erasure). Anyway it means the stories are often not complete. Fascinating though that story roots can be traced back 6,000 years. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Trish. Yes, there’s certainly been a lot of editing over the years – who knows how the original stories panned out? Still, an intriguing window into ancient minds. I like to think of the Bronze Age person who first came up with one of these stories – could he have even imagined it would live on so long?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Quiet right. Because of how language changes, we may never know how old some of these stories truly are. But just knowing they’re this old gives me goose pimples – in a good way 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks petal! It’s a fantastic tradition that has been lost in many parts of the world Thank goodness someone thought to write some of this stuff down, or the stories may have been lost for good. And who doesn’t love a good fairy tale – especially some of the older, gory ones. Fantastic 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d never heard of that, but Tristan and Isolde comes up when you google the phrase. The phrase ‘naked blade’ comes up, which conjures all sorts of images …

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Phylogentic, as I understand it, is using genetics to build up generalised family trees, tracing where ancestral groups may have moved from or travelled to. The process sounds here to be similar in tracking back folktale motifs as far as is possible and then reconstructing origins.

    I’ve long known fairytales preceded Perrault and his contemporaries, even the medieval tales embedded in longer narratives, having read with enjoyment a study called Fairytale in the Ancient World (my copy has since disappeared, no doubt carelessly lent out). This study confirms what many have suspected, and by a different methodology. Exciting stuff, that’s justifiably grabbed people’s imagination!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I loved the idea so much – that Bronze Age man first invented some of the stories we’re so familiar with. Wonder what differences there were in the originals. Sounds like an interesting book you’ve lost there – what a shame.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Michelangelo said he didn’t sculpt anything, he just chipped away at the stone until the sculpture inside it was revealed. Same thing with stories, maybe?

    Also, male nipples are pretty ridiculous, when you them about it (them). I mean really. What for?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard that about many good sculptors – that they allow the stone to dictate what they create. Interesting idea.
      And male nipples? Just there to stop your chests looking blank, I reckon 🙂


    1. Haha! Is that because you had a princess complex, Calen? Yes, I’m not a huge fan. I did hear that some of the employees used to call Disneyland Mousewitz – not very tasteful, but a revealing chink in the squeaky clean Disney armour.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think it was the whole Happily Ever After issue. If you buy into that, it doesn’t prepare you for real-life relationships that require compromise and don’t look or feel like a fairy tale. From what I’ve seen of my daughter’s friends they jump in and out of relationships BECAUSE they don’t see the fairy tale ending in them down the road. And yeah, it’s affected me, too, to a certain extent. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been waiting for Drollery to morph into Prince Charming for the last 44 years! LOL Of course he’s been waiting for ME to morph into Barbie! 😀 I carry a warning key chain to remind him that’s NOT going to happen. It says, “Not born Barbie; trying to cope anyway!” So I guess it wasn’t fair to expect him to wear a poet’s shirt, a cape, and spout all kinds of romantic endearments. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember beng furious in my late teens because fiction and film had so misled me! How dare they make me think men were sweet, romantic devils who’d throw themselves at me, or Rochester / Byronic types who would have a passion so strong they’d move heaven and earth to have me. The selection of gawky, spotty, apathetic boy-men I came acros at the local pub were disappointing to say the least.
      Yes, I’m still wating to turn into the princess – in reality gradually turning into a hairy, wrinkly troll woman!
      Between fairy tale endings and air-brushed celebrities, is it any wonder young people find real relationships disappointing?


  6. I never wanted to be a princess. My dream was to be a Cheyenne brave, riding bare-back across the plains, sporting fringed suede and a massive feathered head-dress, shouting “Hokahay.”
    I think Disney’s greatest crime was Winnie the Pooh. That lump of brown stuff with the silly voice in the films is an imposter, and as for Tigger and Eeyore, it’s shocking what that industry did to him.
    Moving swiftly on; I like the idea that some of those fairy tales may be thousands of years old, partly because it makes the dishonesty and unethical behaviour of some of the characters more excusable, somehow

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aha! Having a husband who knows a fair bit about Native American culture (well, the plains Indians, anyway) I know Hokahay – doesn’t it mean something like ‘it’s a good day to die’? I wish I’d been as cool as you, Jane. I fell for the fairy tale BS and was pretty disappointed when I discovered men weren’t as I’d imagined. Though, to be fair I wanted a Darcy or a Rochester more than a Prince Charming.
      And yes, Disney have massacred a lot of children’s literature, twisting the stories into something alien from the original.
      But we know the black, beating heart of those European tales – part of me feels they are waiting in the darkness, hanging on for their chance of revenge on the glossy, singing, rosy-cheeked imposters Disney created. Now, there’s an idea for a story …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All I know about Hokahay is that my hero, Blackbow the Cheyenne http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/b/blackbow.htm shouted it every time he jumped from his window ont the back of his horse, to rescue his town from evil men. I wasn’t going to die, I was going to ride back to the camp victorious, after slaying all the bad white men who were killing my countrymen and our buffalo – although I think the Cheyenne gave up on that after a while…
        I like your idea of pulling all the storybook heroes and anti-heroes out of their dark corners to attack their pale impersonators. Let’s see the colour of those Disney characters’ blood…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A worthy aim, to protect the town from the evil white man – way too many of them around.
        And I reckon Disney characters’ blood is red, white and blue 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It will be interesting to see it fflow through the streets of Never Never Land 🙂
        I’m having trouble with my f’s. The difficulty doesn’t show up below the posts, only on the drop-down comments box on the right of my screen.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I’m beginning to enjoy it now – it gives me so many choices; whether to have no f, or two, or whether to be creative and avoid the letter altogether, and the most amusing thing is that nobody who reads a reference to my alphabetical disability below my posts will have the faintest idea what I’m talking about – unless they’re experiencing the same problem, and several other bloggers are.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I DO have to add in here, however, that I was pleasantly surprised at Disney’s last attempt at Cinderella. Not because it embraced the original fairy tale, which I doubt it did, but because it eskewed the whole bloomin’ “Happily Ever After” crap and the moral of the story ended up being, The greatest risk a person can take is to let others see them for who they really are. Don’t remember who said it in the movie, but my jaw nearly broke when it hit the floor. I thought that was SO totally awesome.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I confess, I missed that one. I only have a son, no daughter and if I suggested taking him to see Cinderella … Well, you can imagine. To be fair, you’re right, Disney’s message has improved and changed with the times – the girls in the stories are no longer just there to be held captive in a tower, waiting to be rescued by a prince.I wonder how much Shrek affected the Disney outlook – there was a fair amount of little digs at the Magic Mouse Kingdom in that, and a princess who could kick butt and was ugly outside with inner beauty – and found true love! A game changer, I think.


  7. Having daughters gave me intimate knowledge of what’s going on in the world of Disney Princesses. Things have definitely improved. They’re no longer the doormats that Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty are. They no longer lie in a comatose state until some man comes by to rescue them. The contemporary princesses are all strong-willed and independent. I’m not kidding. It’s quite a start to watch one of the old classics and compare it with the more contemporary fare.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very true – the women in these stories have changed a lot. Though they still encourage girls to dress up and be gorgeous, at least they tend to kick backside too – and there’s much less swooning in the modern films than in the old ones! 🙂


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