I’ve always loved the way that stories themselves have stories, changing and evolving over time, so I liked the the idea reported here that some of the traditional fairytales we all know may go back many thousands of years. The research which the article refers to uses similar techniques to those used by biologists and linguists to trace stories back to common ancestors, and concluded, for instance, that ‘the story known as ‘the Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age’. (A smith sells his soul to the devil, but then outsmarts him: I’d say that the song ‘The Devil went down to Georgia‘ is an example, albeit with a fiddler instead of a smith.)
But I reckon some stories must go back a lot further than that. There’s a Native American story from the Northwest coast of North America about a magical, shape-shifting Raven who stole fire, as well as the sun and stars, for humankind, who until then had lived in cold and darkness. This is surely strikingly similar to the story of Prometheus in Greek myth, who also stole fire for humankind*.
But how far back would you have to go back to find a cultural common ancestor of Greece and pre-Columbian America?
*Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, while Raven stole from an eagle. But it was eagles that were sent to punish Prometheus. There is also a Norse story, in which Loki, a subversive shape shifter like Raven, steals from the giant Thiassi and escapes in bird form. The giant pursues him in the form of an enormous eagle, and dies when fire sets light to his feathers. (Raven is scorched too: his feathers used to be pure white, but are turned black by the fire he stole.)