Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The family tree of folk tales

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was a fantastic collection of Japanese folk tales called The Case of the Marble Monster and Other Stories.  They had been collected in the 1950s by an American, I. G. Edmonds, and through the wonders of the Scholastic Book Club became available for schoolchildren like myself.

The stories center on the wise and humorous character of Ōoka Tadasuke, who was a real person -- he lived from 1677 to 1752 in Yedo (now Tokyo), and was an acclaimed and popular magistrate who got a well-deserved reputation not only for his fairness and concern for the plight of the poor, but for coming up with brilliant solutions for difficult cases.  In the first one, "The Case of the Stolen Smell," a miserly and nasty-tempered tempura shop owner claims that a poor student living above his shop is deliberately waiting until he fries his fish, so the aroma will make the student's bowl of rice (all he can afford) taste better -- and the merchant demands compensation for all the smells the student has stolen.

Judge Ōoka hears the complaint, then orders the student to get together all the coins he has, and it looks like the poor young man is in trouble, but then the judge orders the student to pour the pile of coins from one hand to the other, and declares the fine paid.  The tempura shop owner, of course, objects that he hasn't been paid anything.

"I have decided that the payment for the smell of food is the sound of money," Ōoka says, with a bland smile.  "Justice, as always, has prevailed in my court."

The whole collection is an absolute delight.  Several of them -- notably "The Case of the Terrible-Tempered Tradesman" and "The Case of the Halved Horse" -- are laugh-out-loud funny. And in fact, I still own my much-loved and rather worn copy.

A woodcut portrait of the wise Judge Ōoka Tadasuke [Image is in the Public Domain]

Humans have been telling stories for a very, very long time.  And of course, as a novelist, the topic is near and dear to my heart.  Stories can be uplifting, cathartic, funny, shocking, heartbreaking, edifying, instructive, and surprising -- allowing us to access and express our strongest emotions, creating a deep bond between the storyteller and the listener (or reader).

How long have we been telling our invented tales, though?  The tales of the wisdom of Judge Ōoka are about three hundred years old; of course, we have far older ones, from the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which was first written down in the twelfth century C.E. but probably dates in oral tradition to a millennium earlier, to the Greek and Roman myths, back to what is probably the oldest written mythological story we still have a copy of -- the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to around the eighteenth century B.C.E.  But how much farther back in time does the storytelling tradition go?  And how could we be at all sure?

A new study by Sara Graça da Silva (of the New University of Lisbon) and Jamshid Tehrani (of Durham University) has taken a shot at figuring that out.  Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recognize Tehrani's name; he was responsible for the delightful study of the various versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" that amounted to using cladistic bootstrap analysis to determine which were related to which.  Now, da Silva and Tehrani have gone one step further -- employing another technique swiped from evolutionary genetics to analyze folk tales and determine how old the most recent ancestor of the various versions actually is.

There's a technique used by taxonomists and evolutionary biologists called a molecular clock -- a sequence of DNA, some version of which is shared by two or more species, and which undergoes mutations at a known rate.  The number of differences in that sequence between two species then becomes an indication of how long ago they had a common ancestor; the more differences, the longer ago that common ancestor lived.

De Silva and Tehrani used the same approach, but instead of looking for commonalities in actual DNA sequences, they looked at what amounts to the DNA of a story -- the characters, themes, and motifs that make it stand out.  As with Tehrani's earlier study of "Little Red Riding Hood," they found that many folk tales have related versions in other cultures that make it possible to do this kind of comparative phylogenetics.  And some of them seem to go back a very long way -- notably "Jack and the Beanstalk," their analysis of which found common ancestry with other versions dating back to the Bronze Age.

In one way, it's astonishing that this is possible, but in another, it shouldn't be surprising.  The oral tradition of storytelling is common to just about every culture in the world.  I remember my maternal uncle telling us kids creepy stories in French about the loup-garou and feu follet and les lutins that scared the absolute hell out of us (and we loved every minute of it).  That cultural inheritance has very deep roots -- and as da Silva and Tehrani showed, those roots show through in versions of stories we still tell today.


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