I wonder how long oral history lasts. What’s the oldest legend that has some clear fragment of truth in it?

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190 Responses to Legends

  1. dlr says:

    ten minutes, tops.

  2. NobodyExpectsThe... says:

    The Black Sea deluge hypothesis, being the origin of the different deluge myths around the Middle East?

  3. Xenophon Hendrix says:

    I’ve often wondered if the various hairy humanoid stories, e.g. yeti and sasquatch, were folklore based on Neanderthals, but that isn’t clear.

    • R. says:

      There isn’t any real evidence neanderthals were hairy.

      Also, they were tool users – hunted with heavy spears, lived in small groups, and shorter in stature than modern man, and practically all the legends, whether from North America or Asia describe apes that are as tall, or taller than man, and typically solitary.

      There’s a lot of stories about hairy men. Even the old testament has some – Esau is described as being born covered in reddish hairs. Probably just fertile imagination, as had there been a separate species of man in the past, by now, someone, somewhere would have found a skull looking a little bit different.

    • Josh says:

      What about the hobit? Didn’t the native of Flores have stories about little men?

    • Difference maker says:

      Probably trolls, the pre internet conception, I bet. Strong ugly intelligent creatures few in number and lurking about in ambush or hiding places, displaced by the advance of man

      Would probably be the winning oldest legend by tens of thousands of years if so

  4. syonredux says:

    “Clear fragment of truth,” eh? Well, there’s Troy. Troy VIIa fell around the 1190, and the ILIAD was composed circa 750 BC….That’s about 440 years..And the ILIAD is usually held to have been written down around 560 BC…So that’s another 190 years….440 plus 190 = 630 years.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There are some things in the Iliad that hark back to Mycenaean times, like those boar-tusks helmets. But a lot of later stuff is mixed in.

      • dearieme says:

        There used to be people who suspected Schliemann of ‘planting’ some of the material he found at Troy. There were others who thought that Calvert’s identification of Hissarlik as Troy was wrong. But I’ve never come across anyone who reckons that there never was a Troy of some sort, which strikes me as odd.

      • Jim says:

        For example the dead are cremated in Homer but cremation seems not to have occurred in Mycenae. There the dead were entombed.

      • syonredux says:

        “But a lot of later stuff is mixed in.”

        Sure. I mean, I’m pretty damn positive that Achilles was fictional…..But there are are still “fragment[s] of truth” in the Homeric epics

  5. syonredux says:

    Some people think that the Klamath have legends that describe a volcanic eruption that occurred over 7,000 years ago…


  6. st says:

    There is this high mountain peak in Caucasus, Mt Kazbek. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kazbek). It is pretty impressive (16,558 ft); turned out, it is a dormant stratovolcano, that has been quiet for a while -last time it erupted was 6000 years ago. Nothing since year 4000 BC. Yet there is a legend in Georgia, part of traditional Kartvelian folklore, that a hero named Amirani had stolen fire from the skies atop of this peak and given it to the people; eventually ended up chained on the mountain peak as punishment by the deities for his crime. Obviously, a cognate of Prometheus myth; but might also be related to the volcanic activity of Mt. Kazbek. Considering that the last eruption of Mt. Kazbek had been 6000 YBP and Prometheus myth existed in oral form in ancient Greece until perhaps 8th century BC (when it had been put in writing), it gives the legend at least 3000 years of oral existence with some grain of truth in it – fire coming from Mt. Kazbek. (or Caucasus in general, in the Hellenic version, where the exact location of the peak had been lost).

  7. MawBTS says:

    5300 years ago Iry-Hor lived. He is the earliest man whose name we know.

  8. LeeWang says:

    Somebody already mentioned the Australian Aboriginals. As I understand it the claim is that several [21] different groups retain a memory of large scale flooding to places that were only underwater 7000 years ago. Astounding, if true.

    Media: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/16/indigenous-australian-storytelling-records-sea-level-rises-over-millenia

    Original article: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539?journalCode=cage20

  9. dearieme says:

    I once talked to a museum curator in Scotland who suspected that the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean might have originated in the Bronze Age.

    I have never heard of any evidence of any memory in Western Europe of the clearing of the wildwood, which occupied the Neolithic and (I assume) much of the Bronze Age. There are, however, spurious ‘memories’ in England of widespread reforestation during the Dark Ages, and subsequent clearing, and in Scotland of the Great Caledonian Forest. and its destruction by various parties e.g. the Vikings.

    There are spurious memories of what Enclosure involved in England, and of the iron-masters clearing woodland to make charcoal for their furnaces. There are spurious recent memories in Ireland of forests being destroyed to make barrels for Guinness. So a different line of enquiry would be about how fake oral (or partly oral) history has been created of comparatively recent events.

    My favourite landscape historian points out that nobody has any idea how the devil the wildwood was cleared in the British Isles (and therefore, I assume, in neighbouring parts of the Continent) which shows how complete the lack of memory is.

  10. ziel says:

    There seems to be a consensus that there was a massive die-off, perhaps on the order of 90%, in the America’s that started somewhere around 1492 AD that was completed before most of the natives had ever set eyes on a white man.

    Is there any Native American folklore that hearkens back to this? You’d think that would be a pretty memorable event for the survivors, that nearly everyone you knew and loved started getting sick and dropping dead that you might tell some tales about it to your descendants.

    • Jim says:

      If it began around 1492 that would have been too early for it to have been due to diseases spread from the Spanish arrival in the New World. There is a claim that English seafarers had reached the coast of North America about 1470. John Cabot definitely landed on the North American coast in 1497 sailing from Bristol.

    • This did not happen in a single wave but took mutiple waves in different decades.

    • DRA says:

      Many diseases would “burn out” before reaching the Americas before about the time of Columbus. However, chicken pox can be caught from shingles, which may occur decades after the original chicken pox infection. Has anyone checked for chicken pox in the Americas around the the time of the Vikings in Vineland?
      Seems that I recall that was about the time that the Mississippian culture in the midwest and the Mayans in Central America had a major population crash.

    • Ursiform says:

      White men showed up shortly thereafter and took control of history. And gave them more immediate problems to remember.

  11. Olof says:

    I don’t know what your criteria for “clear fragment of truth” is, but maybe the Inuit legends that point to a collective memory of them eliminating the Dorset people?


    ‘Inuit legends recount them encountering people they called the Tuniit (singular Tuniq) or Sivullirmiut “First Inhabitants”. According to legend, the First Inhabitants were giants, taller and stronger than the Inuit but afraid to interact and “easily put to flight.”‘

  12. Ian Morris’ The Use and Abuse of Homer addresses this very question: the oral survival of facts that occured before writing. Here’s his first paragraph:

    SOONER OR LATER, all those who study Dark Age Greece must ask themselves what value to attach to the Homeric poems as sources for social history. Most of the leading archaeologists and historians of early Greece have, as a result, outlined their own approaches to the texts, to such an extent that this problem may be said to have replaced the single/multiple authorship debate as the Homeric Question.1 In the last thirty years, historians have generally concentrated attention on the institutions found in the poems and on the question of to what stage of early Greek history (if any) they belong. The problems arise from the general agreement on three points-first, that the poems were oral compositions; second, that they reached substantially the form in which we have them in the course of the eighth century B.c.; and third, that they purport to describe events taking place in the thirteenth century B.C.

    Morris is very careful in making an argument. You may have read his Why the West rules for now which seems true and accurate in all its particulars except that the reader pretty much knew the facts more or less before picking up the book. Morris’ Homer article was published in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Apr., 1986), pp. 81-138 and is available through JSTOR.

  13. I might have mentionned that Morris argues that almost everything Homer speaks of reflects 8th century BC Greece, not 13th century BC Iron-age Mycenean Greece. However, he grants that Homer does refer to a very small set of things that seem to date from the latter times. I need to reread it.

  14. Down 8 points with 17 seconds. I’ve heard there’s even video. All I have to contribute to an otherwise fascinating post and comments

  15. bob sykes says:

    Depending how narrowly you define legends, E. J. M. Witzel in “The Origins of the World’s Mythologies,” (Oxford, 2012) argues that identifiable components of Eurasian myths can be traced back to 40,000 ybp, and some African mythical elements to perhaps 100,000 ybp.

  16. Peter Lund says:

    King Midas or his father?


    Etruscans coming from Anatolia (Herodotus)?

  17. dain says:

    The early Genesis stories have some pretty obvious parallels with the beginnings of agriculture. If this where they really came from, it means they were orally transmitted for a good few thousand years before being written down.

    • dearieme says:

      How much do we know about the beginnings of agriculture?

      • We know people quit lolling around hunter-gathering and started farming, which is pretty much the broad outline of Genesis 3:17-19, if you squint and leave out the Jehovah part.

        Bit of a stretch to call it historiography IMO, but then I haven’t had a drink all night.

  18. Peter Lund says:

    The Icelandic sagas and the stories about Vinland.

  19. Peter Lund says:

    Sometimes there is no legend left but there is still a toponym.


    The existence of the fortresses was forgotten but the localities were still called “borg” (fortification) or “ring”. Note how many are called Trelleborg or some variation thereof.

    • DD'eDeN says:

      Norse: Borg = ring fort
      Hebrew: ma’gal = circular camp during David & Goliath story
      Basque: magal = protect, shield
      Hebrew: magen/mogen = shield
      Maya: pacal = shield
      Malay: macan = tiger blind (shield)
      Balinese: mbo = mother
      Chinese: gulu = circle
      Mbuti: mongolu = dome hut
      archaic: mbongolu/mborg – ring of mother huts = mbuangdualua/mom-dwell
      The words themselves tell the true oral history if you listen very carefully.

      • Peter Lund says:

        Sometimes they tell of a Jesus in a piece of toast, even.

      • DD'eDeN says:

        Vikings had roundshields, what were they called?
        Geolwe(Beowulf) a roundshield
        Patar(Sanskrit) = protect
        Aha(AncEgypt) = shield
        Gurum(Sumer) = around, dwell
        !hxaro(!Kung) = etched shell cheltia(Aztec) = shield
        spara(Persian) = shield
        targa(Celtic) wicker roundshield

        • DD'eDeN says:

          skjöldr(Viking) roundshield [carried on shoulder?]
          “Evidence from skaldic poetry suggests round shields. Snorri Sturluson, writing well after the Viking age, says that in earlier times, shields were decorated on the border called the circle (baugr, which also has the meaning of “ring”). Thus, Snorri says that in poetry, shields should be referred to as a circle, suggesting that shields were round. Snorri gives several examples of verse which use this reference (Skáldskaparmál 49).
          Other kinds of shields are mentioned in the sagas, including targa (target) and buklari (buckler), although it’s not clear from the stories how these differed from normal shields (skjöldr). In translation, the two words are usually rendered as “small shield.” ” http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/viking_shields.htm
          Note: Boss or umbo refer to the central handle cover, related to (m)borg, ring fort.

          • DD'eDeN says:

            skjöldr(Viking) roundshield, shelter of soldier, parallel to cheltia(Aztec), both having lost the maternal prefix (ma, mo, mbo, bu) while buckler retained it.

  20. Peter Lund says:

    “Stories about ‘misbehaving’ or exploding lakes had circulated in the region for many years before the 1986 explosion, and continue to circulate. This article summarizes eighty years of myth collection carried out by ethnographers, historians, administrators and missionaries who visited prior to the 1986 explosion. It also adds information about myth transformations and new folklore explanations for the Nyos explosion over 13 years following the explosion, and contributes to the discussion of implications for disaster relief in any large-scale catastrophe.”



  21. Paul Conroy says:

    The Irish “Myth”, “Lebor Gabála Érenn” – describes how Ireland was conquered successive times, by successive peoples. Its written origins are at least 1,500 years old. But it’s oral origins could be much older.
    Among its claims are that the Gaels originated in Scythia – which actually conforms to the Steppe Hypothesis, and has been confirmed via Ancient DNA.
    Other claims are that the early Gaels settled and built a city in Galicia, NW Iberia, called Brigantia. There are tribal groupings in SE Ireland and Northern Britain called Brigantes, which seems to be related. The Brigantes are also associated with St Brigid, the keeper of the Holy Flame, and related to the Goddess Birgit. So it seems that the Brigantes kept alive some sort of Fire Worship. As a kid in Ireland, living about 20 miles from Kildare town, where St Brigid lived, we would make “St Brigid Crosses” around Easter every year to commemorate her. The cross is really a slightly attenuated Swastika. Both Fire Worship and Swastikas are redolent of early Indo-Aryan and Scythian cultural practices.


    • Difference maker says:

      There were Celts in Galicia, and there’s thought that there was more than a bit of maritime traffic down the Atlantic coast in the old days

      • Hugh Mann says:

        Some speculated that Britain was repopulated from Iberia after the last Ice Age – this is from 2005, don’t know what the current view is


        A lot later, after the Saxon invasions, Britons returned. I knew they’d gone to Brittany, but not to Galicia. Northern Spain even today is remarkably “Celtic” – bagpipes, cider, rain, remains of those round beehive stone huts like the ones in Ireland,


        “It was established in Kingdom of the Suebi, in the Roman Gallaecia, northwestern Hispania, in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD by Romano-Britons escaping the Anglo-Saxons, who were conquering Britain. Britonia is therefore similar to Brittany in Gaul (present-day France) in that it was settled by expatriate Britons at roughly the same time.”

  22. JayMan says:

    There’s this claim of an Australian Aboriginal memory going back 30,000 years:


    • AppSocRes says:

      I found that extremely interesting. But the sagas are written not oral tradition. I’ve always been fascinated by Skallagrimson. He was an incredibly gifted poet and a sociopath. He had a running feud with Erik Bloodaxe. When he captured the Erik’s young old son he gut stabbed him and threw him in the ocean to drown. Years later he fell into the hands of Bloodaxe who was going to kill him. Bloodaxe let Skallagrimson go when the skald composed – literally overnight – a drapa, a very difficult elegaic verse form, in honor of the Earl. Although this seems hard to believe, there is a drapa that Skallagrimson wrote called something like “Head Price”. IIRC, it is the first known example of skaldic verse with an end rhyme. Despite Dr. Johnson’s famous reflection on how imminent death concentrates the mind It is hard to conceive the talent required to compose a poem like this in the night before one’s expected execution.

    • Egil was certainly real, but lived only 1,100 or so years ago.

  23. I read something about Russian linguists investigating this. They found oral tales about General Yermolov the earliest that aren’t a legend. That is, ~120 years

  24. Jim says:

    The earliest manuscript versions of the Nibelungenlied date to the 13th century. The events are loosely related to actual historical events of the 5th century. So some oral transmission of historical events over perhaps as long as 800 years if the 13th century manuscripts were the first written down.

    • syonredux says:

      RE: untangling actual historical events and personages from myth and legend,

      Obviously, it’s pretty damn tough. In most cases (THE ILIAD, the Pentateuch, etc), we simply lack the proper controls (literary sources written down at a time reasonably close to the events in question). Hence, we have to rely on a combination of archaeology plus intuition.Was a city sacked at roughly the proper time? Does a given individual appear to be based on a real person?

      The SONG OF THE NIBELUNGS, though, is a much easier job. It quite clearly grows out of accounts of the Fall of the Kingdom of the Bergundians in AD 436 and the death of Attila after his marriage to the Germanic princess Ildikó in AD 453.Note, though, how the narrative scrambles the actual chronology for the sake of a good story.In The Nibelungenleid Kriemhild (the Ildikó-figure) marries Attila before the Fall of the Burgundians, and Flavius Aetius (the Roman who actually was responsible for the destruction of the Burgundian Kingdom) is nowhere to be seen.And Dietrich of Bern (aka Theodoric the Great) is inserted into the tale, despite the fact that Dietrich/Theodoric was born after Attila’s death ( Theodoric: 454 – August 30, 526)

      As for Siegfried, the narrative’s central hero, he is obviously pure myth*. Someone simply decided to insert this legendary dragon-slayer into the story of the Nibelungs because it seemed like a good idea.

      As this shows, epics are stories, not histories.And story-tellers are interested in what makes a good story.So, take a real event (the fall of the Burgundians) and then toss in whatever will add spice to the tale: Attila! Siegfried! Dragons! People (e.g., Theodoric) who weren’t even alive yet! etc, etc,.

      *Yeah, I’m familiar with the fringe theory that he’s based on Arminius. I don’t buy it.

      • syonredux says:

        While we’re at it, let’s use the lessons learned from The Nibelungenlied and apply them to The Iliad and The Pentateuch.


        Historical kernel: The Sack of Troy (Troy VIIa, circa 1190 BC)

        Actual Historical Personages: ? Perhaps Paris, seeing as how the Hittite archives refer to an Alaksandu or Alaksandus (Paris is also called Alexander in The Iliad). Unfortunately, this possible prototype for Paris was a grown man circa 1280 BC (cf the treaty with Muwatalli II ), which indicates the kind of temporal scrambling that we saw in The Nibelungenlied (e.g., Theodoric being alive before he was born, the marriage of a Germanic princess occurring before the Fall of the Burgundians instead of after, etc).

        Other possibilities: Maybe Agamemnon? He seems like the kind of great King figure who might have been remembered in song, and Mycenae (his palace) was an important Mycenaean citadel.But that’s sheer speculation on my part.

        Clearly fictional: Achilles.Also Odysseus. Also Helen.Also, etc.


        Historical Kernel: ? Maybe the expulsion of the Hyksos?People have been toying around with this notion since Josephus. The problem, of course, is that the Hyksos were rulers of Egypt, not slaves. So, if this is the kernel, then it is a massively distorted folk memory with no historical value.Plus, the narrative of the conquest of Canaan bears no relationship to what the archaeologists have unearthed.

        Actual Historical Personages: ? Seemingly none.Tellingly, the Pharaoh is unnamed, a pretty good sign that he is a stock character and not modeled on a real person.

        Clearly Fictional: Pretty much everybody: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, etc. Frankly, we probably don’t encounter real people until we get to Samuel and Saul and the United Monarchy.And by real people I mean real people like King Arthur or Dietrich of Bern, the Germanic epic version of Theodoric the Great. In other words, legendary figures who are very loosely based on real people. So, if David lived, he probably bears little to no resemblance to the figure that we meet in Samuel and Kings.

        • Jim says:

          Of course the epics or Biblical chronicles are not literally accurate history but that is completely consistent with them having a relation to actual historical events. Probably in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the Sea Peoples or “Peoples of the Islands” nomads invaded to grab what they could. The Old Testament tells a story of nomads from the desert conquering long settled cities. That probably happened even though the details in the Bible are all wrong.

          About the Paris/Alexander/Alaksandu thing. I thing it is now generally accepted that the Hittite name “Wilusa” is referring to the same area as the Greek “Illios” or “Willios” in archaic Greek. The name “Alexander” is Greek though meaning “Thrower of Men”. I believe that the only writing ever found at Troy is in Luwian.

          The epics and the Bible are stories true but they often do have a historical basis. Saying that epics have a historical basis is not the same as saying that they are literally accurate. I think it’s likely that there was some sort of Mycenaean siege of Troy but I certainly don’t believe the story of the Trojan horse.

          • Jim says:

            I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that the story of the Trojan Horse is from the Aeneid not Homer.

            • gcochran9 says:

              It’s mentioned in the Odyssey. “What a thing was this, too, which that mighty man wrought and endured in the carven horse, wherein all we chiefs of the Argives were sitting, bearing to the Trojans death and fate! “

        • Anchises says:

          Genesis describes the Edomites as distant kin of the Israelites, descended from Jacob’s elder brother Esau, and certain Egyptian sources may or may not link the Edomites to the Shasu, a tribe of Sinai-dwelling nomads who may or may not have had some affiliation with a place or a deity called “YHWH”. (Only a couple of highly ambiguous inscriptions sustain this theory, so take it for what it’s worth). Ancient Jewish law allowed Edomites and Egyptians to immigrate, convert to Judaism, and be naturalized after three generations, a privilege denied to other close neighbors such as Ammonites and Moabites, so it’s not unreasonable to think they had some kind of ongoing ties of kinship and trade to Sinai and Egypt. Hebrew scripture probably jumbles together memories of the Hyksos and Sea Peoples with the tales of merchants and traders who travelled caravan routes back and forth from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Given the Tel Dan Stele, I’d hazard the likely existence of a real historical king called David, but I doubt whether we will ever be able to independently confirm any other facts about his life.

          • Jim says:

            The Hyksos invasion of Egypt is about 1650 BC. They were mostly expelled by about 1550 BC. The Bronze Age Collapse begins about 1200 BC. Since the Philistines were one of the “Sea Peoples” I think the Hebrew scriptures are (very loosely) describing a time long after the Hyksos.

            Hyksos in Egyptian means I believe “foreign chieftains”. They don’t seem to have been a single ethnic group. One study of their names gave results as I recall of about 60% Aramaic, 30% Hurrian and 10% Aryan.

        • Derek says:

          The word “Hebrew” might be derived from “Habiru,” a group not so much a tribe as a social class of brigands who lived on the outskirts of cities in the Middle East. Their expulsion from Egypt might be the basis of Exodus.

          Russell Gmirkin has an interesting theory that the Pentateuch was composed around 273-272 BCE by Jewish scholars at Alexandria.

    • Thursday says:

      It’s not clear that this is based on oral tradition though. There can be lost texts intervening.

      There are poems about the same events in the Poetic Edda that have to be well before the 13th century, for example.

  25. Erik the Red says:

    I’m partial to the notion that the “forbidden fruit” was wheat, making the Garden of Eden a story about the dawn of agriculture, and the story of Cain and Abel the first conflict between settled farmer and semi-nomadic pastoralist. That would make it perhaps 6 millennia old when first written down.

    • Erik the Red says:

      8 millennia, sorry.

    • Difference maker says:

      The story of Cain and Abel is indeed the conflict between the agricultural and pastoral ways of life

      Spurious preachy thundering: They have rejected civilization!
      But perhaps a position not without merit. Beginnings of old testament tribalism though

    • dearieme says:

      But surely it would have been written down earlier wherever it originated – in Iraq or Egypt, say.

    • This is a Kabbalah thing? Awhile ago I thought that modern (from the 1860’s on) food weirdness was because of/or a byproduct of certain religious practices.

    • DRA says:

      I’m partial to the thought that the “forbidden fruit” was a “cherry”. And I’ve a good idea of several names for the “snake”. In any event, it seems to me to be a story of growing up and having to take on the burdens of adulthood, albeit in an agricultural setting.

      • MawBTS says:

        Also, you know how the snake gets punished by having to crawl on its belly (Genesis 3:14)? Prompting the question “how did it move before?”

        According to palaeontological evidence, snakes originally had legs.

        • So either we have a 100-million year old folk memory, or else people noticed that snakes are unusually legless and came up with a story to explain it. One of the two.

          • Erik the Red says:

            Most of the Bible is seeded with truth, but you probably shouldn’t take it literally. Think of it, at best, as a conglomeration of metaphors inherited from some sand-people living before the invention of steel.

            • Rich Rostrom says:

              Except that there are actual bits of information in the Bible. During the 1917 Palestine Campaign, a British officer recalled a passage in 1 Samuel 14 about a military exploit of Saul’s son Jonathan. The passage mentioned a trail up the side of a valley – which turned out to be the valley the British were trying to cross, and the trail was still there, allowing them to flank a Turkish position.

              • melendwyr says:

                What are the chances that a valley in a relatively densely populated desert region populated by herders would have a trail up it?
                Is there any historical evidence for the existence of Saul? I know there’s none for either David or Solomon.

          • MawBTS says:

            My intent was more to observe a cool alignment of the stars than to make a scientific claim.

            Interesting blog, btw. Reading it now.

  26. Eugine Nier says:

    There are claims that the legendary Oghuz_Khagan (first recorded 13th century) is based on the historical Maodun (reign 209–174 BC).

  27. Difference maker says:

    What you are looking for: the Hmong of Southeast Asia supposedly have legends from the Ice Age, or at least describing snow plains and polar seasons. Their heritage funeral ritual of ‘Showing the Way’ to the ancestors is thought to imagine the ancestors’ abode as a land of ice and snow

    This must have been long ago indeed and Hmong of historical times may have forgotten the original word for ice, so some interpretation is no doubt involved

  28. Jim says:

    The Aztecs had legends of wandering in a long trek from the far north through deserts to finally reach the Valley of Mexico. The Nahuatl language is a Uto-Aztecan language which seems most closely related in that group to the Tanoan languages of the Taos Pueblos. The distribution of Uto-Aztecan languages suggests that they dispersed from the Great Basin of the US. So the ancestors of the Aztecs probably did wander through the deserts of the Southwest US and Northern Mexico as narrated in their myths.

  29. AppSocRes says:

    The aboriginal Australians have myths about a giant Moa that correspond closely with an actual species that became extinct soon after humans arrived in Australia. I suppose that fossil fragments might have led to the myths. But the idea of oral transmission is an intriguing possibility.

  30. dearieme says:

    “The Old Testament tells a story of nomads from the desert conquering long settled cities. That probably happened even though the details in the Bible are all wrong.” But nomads attacking cities are such ordinary occurrences that the tales are worth nothing at all. It’s like mentioning that trading ships sailed from Phoenician ports. So what?

    • Jim says:

      Actually nomads attacking cities isn’t all that common. Prior to the onslaught of the Sea Peoples the Egyptians, Hittites, the Kingdom of Mitanni and others fought each other over control of the Levant and it’s trade routes for centuries but the peripheral nomads don’t seem to have been much of a threat. Nomads do sometimes attack cities but it’s not an everyday occurrence. Prior to the Hyksos Invasion Egyptian cities seem to have been safe from nomad attack for over a thousand years.

      • dearieme says:

        Take Jericho. It’s walls were destroyed 150 years before Joshua purportedly brought them down. But is there any evidence that they were brought down by nomads?

        • Josh says:

          Weren’t the babylonians of Hammurabi originally nomads? I wouldn’t be surprised if nomadic raids were a common occurance in the ancient world. I once did a little geneology project tracing my paternal ancestry and found on that one line, two generations had been kidnapped by Indians and ransomed back to completely different communities.

          • Jim says:

            The Babylonians of Hammurabi were not nomads. Nomad raids on villages are not the same as nomads taking cities. In ancient history at most times and places nomads were not a big threat. However after the onslaught of the Sea Peoples and the collapse of the Hittite and Egyptian Empires peripheral nomads such as the ancestors of the Hebrews probably swarmed into the Levant taking advantage of the resulting weakness.

            • carol2000 says:

              The ancestors of the Hebrews were already in the Levant. They were among the peoples comprising the Canaanites.

            • Karl says:

              Early Hebrew was a language, not an ethnicity, and those Hebrew-speakers who later went down to Egypt, were only a portion of the Hebrew-speaking people

              The Phoenicians spoke the same language as the Israelites. There’s rabbinical complaints in the Talmud about Tribe of Dan (ie, Haifa area) boys running off to sea to make some easy money, or running around with Lebanese shiksas.

    • dearieme says:

      Back we go: “The Old Testament tells a story of nomads from the desert conquering long settled cities. That probably happened even though the details in the Bible are all wrong.”

      Why did it “probably” happen? The archaeology finds the tale of the conquest by Joshua to be bogus. So what did you have in mind?

      • Jim says:

        After the onslaught of the Sea Peoples and the collapse of the Hittite and Egyptian Empires nomads may well have moved in to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum in the Levant. These nomads could have included ancestors of the Hebrews..

  31. dearieme says:

    I once saw the point made that in all the Sanskrit writing about what we’d now interpret as the Aryan invasion(s) of India, there’s no sign that their earlier life on the Steppe was remembered.

  32. Peter Gerdes says:

    Just pick the oldest legend still existent. Almost all such legends have some degree of truth in them, e.g., they represent people as needing to eat, engaging in hunting/farming and walking on 2 legs.

    The problem is you want them to have a fragment of truth in some very particular sense, e.g., telling you about non-obvious historical details not merely that yup, 10,000 years ago people knew about hunting. Defining that usefully is going to be really hard.

  33. masoni says:

    Some clear fragment of truth? All of them. If it survived orally, then it must had something very true in it to be remembered by generations, each one distilling the truth further. Do we know how old are the stories in the Old Testament?

    • MawBTS says:

      If it survived orally, then it must had something very true in it to be remembered by generations, each one distilling the truth further.

      Have you ever played Broken Telephone at a party? I seem to recall the message gets increasingly wrong as it’s passed around the circle, rather than more accurate. Maybe I went to the wrong parties.

  34. Doug Jones says:

    The Klamath seem to have a legend inspired by the eruption that created Crater Lake, Oregon, 7700 years ago.

    Also, (but not so ancient): the trend among archeologists lately has been to dismiss Exodus as a pretty complete fabrication. The best counterargument comes from this book, which makes the case that two different flights from Egypt, 17th and 15th century BC, have been merged into one story:

    • gcochran9 says:

      One factor that often erases any oral history is population replacement. if someone else comes in and wipes out the locals, it’s not likely that their legends will survive them. It seems that such replacements may not have happened quite as often in the New World as in Europe (judging from the language patterns and some genetic hints). Not counting Brazil, not counting the Dorset culture.

      That said, if I were even a little bit skeptical ( and I am), I would doubt any claim for oral history going back very far ( > 2000 years). Among other things, it’s pretty easy to salt the mine.

      • carol2000 says:

        New study published today: Based on ancient DNA, “We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age. In addition, we find Eurasian ancestry in the Lebanese not present in Bronze Age or earlier Levantines. We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations.” “We found that the Lebanese can be best modeled as Sidon_BA 93% ± 1.6% and a Steppe Bronze Age population 7% ± 1.6%.”

  35. Eerik says:

    The story of the Kaali meteor impact in the Finnish epic Kalevala was passed down for ca. 3000 years until it was written down in the 19th century.


  36. Jalfrezi says:

    Native Americans have stories that they came from across the ice, which sounds like Siberia.

  37. Janet says:

    I think that there are several “layers” of oral history. The first is what we might call “living” history– stories that someone heard from someone who heard directly from someone who lived through the event. Think, your grandparents, talking about their grandparents’ stories about when they were kids. This is the last point where you have any kind of knowledge of the stories from a personal standpoint (e.g. the personalities of the people involved). This is about 150-180 years, tops– say, Civil War era stories for me (my grandfather, who told me about his grandmother, who was a young girl and watched the Union Army march out to Bull Run bragging, and how they came scooting back after with their tails between their legs after). He knew her as a person, and I have his recollections of her personality and many rich details of the story (e.g. soldiers were straggling back all night long, trying to hide from their officers in my family’s hay barn and cursing when they were found, etc.). But beyond that, my ancestors are more remote, impersonal; and stories can drift much easier, have fewer details, and are starting to become myths.

    Beyond that are the ethnic stories of key leaders, major societal events, battles, religious events, etc. Some societies put far more emphasis on these than others (e.g. by having bards or poets memorize large numbers of these sagas and gain status by reciting/singing them at key rituals). These can probably go back a millenium or more, at least in some societies, and almost all societies can go back 300-400 years with accuracy, including names and datable events. (Think, stories about how my family first moved to America in the late 1600s: I know their names, where they lived, what their jobs were, etc.) It’s hard to say, though, because if you don’t have writing, then how do you verify the historicity? And if you do have writing, then it’s a written tradition, right?

    And then beyond that… well, it’s super hard to say, isn’t it? Stories either lose the details which make them datable and precise, or they could be conflations between more than one event (devastating floods, volcanic eruptions, crossing deserts/mountains/snow fields, etc.), or loose allegories rather than tight histories, or whatever. Are the stories about meeting big, hairy, scary foreigners and fighting them– memories of meeting Neanderthals 40,000 years ago, or meeting a very foreign ethnic group 2,000 years ago (or 200 years ago), or invented stories to scare kids into staying home at night, or a story they heard from another group and liked enough to keep telling (whether it’s true or not), or an archetype/allegory about how the world is scary and dangerous… or maybe all of them, somehow combined? How would you know?

  38. The story of Adam and Eve was almost certainly handed down in oral tradition for centuries before it was finally written down. As for its grain of truth: https://goo.gl/uikvFb

  39. James Miller says:

    One test might be family history. What’s the oldest thing you know about your family that isn’t written down? For me it is that a great grandfather moved to America to escape being drafted into the Czar’s army.

    • syonredux says:

      “One test might be family history. What’s the oldest thing you know about your family that isn’t written down? For me it is that a great grandfather moved to America to escape being drafted into the Czar’s army.”

      Trick, though, is to find a way to falsify the family lore. For example, one of the oldest stories in my family involves a man (my great- great-great uncle) who served in the campaign against Geronimo. Well, a few years back, one of my relatives decided to see if he could verify the tale, and it turned out to be true. He found my great- great-great uncle in army records of the Geronimo Campaign .

    • gcochran9 says:

      Oldest that comes to mind involves my great-great-great-grandfather. There was an informal debate between Lincoln and Douglas in my home town: Douglas ( well-known Senator) would give a speech and Lincoln would follow. Not yet part of the organized Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Douglas supporters called this ‘stealing the crowd”.

      According to family lore, Lincoln was being taken to Freeman Grove, with Andrew Cochran driving the wagon. Douglas supporters tried to block them: Andrew Cochran cleared a path with his bullwhip.

    • Peter Lund says:

      My great grandfather did it in 1867 at the age of 19 to avoid an expected Prussian draft for a looming Really Big War (after the wars of 1864 and 1866). It came in 1870 while he lived in Louisiana. He returned home to Schleswig after a decade and did really well.

      But that is all written down. You made me realize both that I actually have knowledge of branches of my family going several generations further back (with photos, even!) but that none of that is oral knowledge. Perhaps we have been too good at writing things down 😉

      One thing I didn’t know until a few years ago was that I had a distant family member who died in the earthquake/fire in San Francisco.

      The oldest story that we don’t have proper sources for is about one of the Russian POWs from the first World War. They were distributed around the countryside in Germany to provide labour as a replacement for the men at the front. One of them is supposed to have gone home to Russia/the Soviet Union only to find out that his wife had thought him dead and remarried. Then is supposed to have returned to the village where he was a POW and worked for one of the farmers he worked for during the war.

      There has been very little research into Russian POWs in Danish since Denmark was neutral and it happened in a part of Denmark that was temporarily German 1864-1920. Probably almost all the relevant published historical research is in German/Russian and if I want to dig into it myself the old stuff will be in German (not a big problem) and Russian (aarg!).

      • szopeno says:

        One member of my family supposedly was called Dombrowski/Dąbrowski, went to America, fought and died in war and was assigned a plot of land. I am pretty sure this refers to real events during war in Texas before 1840, i.e 180 years ago.

        Also, Gall Anonymous chronicle written in early XII century (before 1116) records events from X century, and is considered pretty reliable source of information. Some the most basic facts are the names of the dynasty members, that they were great conquerors. If true, it would record names of people living almost 200 years before. Not much compared to thousands years mentioned in this thread, but also much more certain that it was true.

    • ironrailsironweights says:

      For me, it’s a story about how several relatives of a great-great grandfather on my father’s side of the family died when the Italian fireworks factory in which they worked exploded. It probably would have been in the last decade of the 19th century. I suppose it would be possible to find a historical record, but that certainly would take time and effort.


  40. Paul Conroy says:

    Also, as a kid in Ireland we would sing:
    “Ring a ring a rosie,
    Pocket put of posies,
    Asha asha,
    We all fall down!”
    This rhyme refers to the Black Death or Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages.

    • dearieme says:

      WKPD”: ‘Urban legend says the song originally described the plague, specifically the Great Plague of London, or the Black Death, but folklorists reject this idea.’

      It’s a bugger trying to be confident of anything in oral history, or even written history. Example: Roman writing says that their legions marched into northern Scotland and fought barbarians there, who lurked in a great forest. Pollen studies show that to be rubbish – no such great forest existed at the time.

      Interpretation: barbarians-in-the-forest had just become a standard literary trope about Romans fighting in northern Europe.(based, perhaps, on their experiences in Germany?).

      And if you can’t trust a Roman who can you trust?

      As for the Gaels and Scythia: how can we guess what “Scythia” meant to the Gaels thousands of years ago? Did it mean “towards the rising sun”? Somewhere specific? Or just “once upon a time, long ago, in a faraway land”?

  41. Paul Conroy says:

    oops, “Pocket full of posies”

  42. JP says:

    The Gilgamesh epic (forget which version, maybe both) seems to contain a memory of the transition to farming and bread baking, in the opening lines. I’ve read Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving story.

  43. Paul Conroy says:

    In my own personal case, family legend says that my Conroy name is derived from “Conn na Reata”, (Conn the Runner), which was Anglicized to Conraghty and then Conroy.
    The story went that one Conn O’Duinn (Dunn, Dunne, Doyne) was on business in the Pale town of Athy, in 1599, when he got word of an impending English invasion. This force was led by the Earl of Essex, and was amassing troops in Athy, to cross the river Barrow into Gaelic territory and attack the O’Mordha (O’More, Moore) Clan and their allies, including the O’Duinn Clan. Young Conn immediately left Athy and ran about 25 miles to warn the Gaelic lords of this invasion. They had just enough time to set a trap, which resulted in the famous Battle of the Pass of the Plumes, where the English forces were ambushed and massacred.
    My Y-DNA test results confirm that all my closest matches are Dunn/Dunne/Doyne/Conroy from the chiefly line – so that’s a 400 yo oral tradition, that you won’t find written anywhere.


  44. Zenit says:

    The Admonitions of Ipuwer, describing the disasters of fall of Old Kingdom Egypt, very similar to the Ten Plagues in the Book of Exodus.

  45. dearieme says:

    I remember once reading a Welshman who explained how his uncle had seen the troops that Churchill had sent in 1910, to Tonypandy in Wales, and had watched them shooting down striking miners.

    In fact, endless investigation by historians has established beyond doubt that it never happened. No troops fired; no miners were shot. It was all balls. As one commenter said “In 1967 an Oxford undergraduate wrote that Churchill had actually accompanied the soldiers with tanks, which was very prescient of him, since they had yet to be invented.”

    If such twaddle can be repeated endlessly, in the face of conclusive evidence of its falsehood, what can oral history be worth?

    • dearieme says:

      In case of doubt, let me say that I am no Churchill worshipper. I do feel, however, that even that self-aggrandising and reckless politician should not be slandered.

    • James James says:

      This story is told and debunked in “The Daughter of Time” by Josephine Tey, which is full of things like this.

    • Jim says:

      The undoubted fact that oral history includes complete nonsense does not show that everything in oral history is such.

  46. Michael D. Abramoff says:

    In Exodus 4:26 there is the following fragment
    25 ותקח צפרה צר ותכרת את־ערלת בנה ותגע לרגליו ותאמר כי חתן־דמים אתה לי׃
    25 Then Zipporah picked up a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, “Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.”

    The Torah was written down about 2500-3000 years ago during the Bronze age. This fragment describes the event of a woman performing a circumcision on a male child with a stone knife, which is how this was traditionally done in the Neolithicum, at least 3000-4000 years earlier. The scene may be the memory of female priests cutting off the foreskin from that most male of appendages, to substitute for the sacrifice of male newborns.

    • dearieme says:

      “The Torah was written down about 2500-3000 years ago during the Bronze Age.”

      2500 years ago wasn’t in the Bronze Age in Palestine. 3000 years ago is too early for the Torah in the view of the scholars of the issue. Further there probably wasn’t a Jewish people 3000 years ago. The ancestors of the Jews – or maybe they should be called Hebrews at that point – had not yet differentiated themselves from their fellow Canaanites by adopting their cultic practices e.g. food taboos. Or so the archaeology suggests.

      • Michael D. Abramoff says:

        Good points, but I was claiming there was a description of what to me can only be a Stone Age event written down for the first time, AFAIK, in the Bronze Age, irrespective of who the people who did this or who write this were.

  47. HK says:


    in Wikipedia, there is a description of the concept of a “Mytheme”, as an atom of narrative structure (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mytheme). In the German edition of Scientific American, there is a long article about the longevity of mythemes as building blocks of fairy tales, myths and sagas. The author Julien d’Huy, an anthropologist from Paris, argues that mythemes can be analyzed with similar tools as used for genealogical trees, and that some mythemes and basic combimations thereof would be very, very old. That does not prove the link between an original historical event to a mytheme, though. It simply gives an argument that narrations can be very old and propagated wildly.


    Link to the original article (text is in German, but there are some useful illustrations):

  48. j says:

    Peoples have notions of their origins, and those legends have been generally confirmed by science. For example, the Phoenicians knew they had migrated to modern Lebanon from the Gulf (Iraq) thousand years before. Ancient Greeks thought the Pelasgians Πελασγοί indigenous and themselves as latecomers, but it seems they were wrong. On the other hand, place names seem to stick forever.

    • dearieme says:

      “On the other hand, place names seem to stick forever.” There are remarkably few Ancient British place names in England. The Romans (a little bit), the Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes largely replaced those names, even though the DNA apparently says that the English are about 70% descended from the Ancient Brits.

      It must be possible that some ancient place names have been distorted beyond recognition but in the nature of things there’s not much useful to be said about that.

      The most fascinating place name suggestion I’ve seen in the last decade is that Thanet (in Kent) comes from a Phoenician/Carthaginian place name.

      By the way, what’s the evidence that the Phoenicians’ ancestors came from Iraq? Ancient DNA?

      • Paul Conroy says:


        Have you heard of the Bard of Avon?

        In Irish Gaelic “Abhainn” pronounced “OW-on” means River.
        Avon = River

        We’re talking Common Celtic here!

  49. Sandgroper says:

    This seems like a certainty, although the timescale is not the most impressive:

    Several people have mention Aboriginal Australian oral histories; a prime example is the claim that Aboriginal people have an oral history about the island of Rottnest that was once connected to the Western Australian mainland and people could walk there, but is now only barely visible on the horizon to the naked (European) eye. The problem with such claims is that they could be fact checked in the 19th Century, when no Aboriginal people could have acquired any knowledge about the end of the LGM, but they can’t now, because it is impossible to rule out that all Aboriginal today might have got wind of the science, one way or another, and might ‘construct’ an oral history after the event – OK, probably not, but it can no longer be checked as a certainty.

    • dearieme says:

      “the timescale is not the most impressive”: but that adds to the plausibility of the claim.

    • swampr says:

      Maori migration legends are a good baseline for what can be remembered across 500 years. Circa 1300 to the 19th century. Pretty vague but they knew they came in canoes a roughly the right number of generations ago. The name of at least one island of origin was remembered.

      • dearieme says:

        And there’s little danger of their tales having been polluted by literate outsiders. Does anyone here know whether the people of Madagascar had any tales of their Austronesian ancestors arriving from the East?

  50. Peter Lund says:

    The mead halls in Beowulf were real.

    The Scyldings seem to have existed (at least some of them, in some order). Saxo Grammaticus didn’t invent all his “historic” kings, either. We know from Frankish annals and treaties, etc. that there were kings/powerful people in Denmark and nearby with about the same names as some of those Saxo mentions.

  51. dearieme says:

    If you look at the comment on this blog post, you’ll see that I think the post is relevant to oral history. Remember that some oral history takes the form of poetry.


  52. dearieme says:

    Two able historians Have Views on oral history.

  53. melendwyr says:

    I vaguely recall reading a book of Native American legends about the origins of horses – none of which had anything to do with the actual reintroduction of horses into North America by the Spanish.
    Oral history may have occasional inclusions of truth, much as stones in a mine may have occasional inclusions of precious metals, but it seems to be quite rare that as much of a nugget’s worth of reality is found at once. I suspect it’s not worth paying attention to.

  54. Gord Marsden says:

    Perhaps that the Aztec zodiac has 8 correlatable animals to the Chinese zodiac shows a long term oral link. Or maybe more recent trade across the ocean. Recent meaning +/- 2000 years

  55. Coon says:

    Moses, 3.

  56. Jim says:

    The “Dorian Invasion” is probably a memory of an actual invasion from the north at the end of the Bronze Age. So it would have lasted in oral tradition during the Heroic Age for over 500 years.

  57. Jim says:

    the Albanians have an oral tradition that they are the descendants of the ancient Illyrians. Could be true. However the Hungarians at one time believed they were the descendants of the Huns but there doesn’t appear to be any particular relationship between the Magyars and the Huns.

  58. Ears Thyrel says:

    What about constellations? de Santillana in his Origin of Scientific Thought:
    “We have reason to think that…the Sumerian names for planets and constellations…were inherited from unknown predecessors. As concerns the Egyptian names of constellations, it is evident from the most ancient star lists that they were, even then, no longer grasped in their original significance.”

  59. Denvilda says:

    According to Tacitus the Germans still sang about the first man and first king, Mannus, the founder of their lineage. This is the same “Mannus” — Manu in their langue — that the Hindus revered as the first man. How long ago was the German Indo-Aryan split, at least 2500 to 3000 years?

  60. HK says:


    let’s stir up the discussion a bit! I simply propose to discuss that the giants from Norse mythology were Neanderthals, that the Fimbulwinter was the ice age, that Odin was one-eyed because he was a raven-tamer that was attacked by one of his ravens, that Ragnarök was a historical extermination war between Neanderthals and Aesir ending in a win of the Aesir (= genocide of the Neanderthals), that the Greek titan stories may be related, and so on. Here is a link to the draft paper:

    I do admit that somebody with a lot of knowledge (G.) read the draft and made very insightful comments that might be summarized as “nice try, but very unlikely”. But still, what do you think, please?


  61. carol2000 says:

    An ancient village believed to be one of the oldest human settlements ever found in North America has been discovered during an excavation on a remote island in British Columbia.

    The village, which is estimated to be 14,000 years old, has been found on a rocky spit on Triquet Island, about 500 kilometres northwest of Victoria, Canada.

    It is estimated the village is older than Egypt’s pyramids….

    According to Heiltsuk Nation’s oral traditions, stories of ancient coastal villages have been passed down for generations.

  62. hooodathunkit says:

    Newgrange, c 3200 BC. There’s no definite ‘when it stopped working’, but sometime along the roofbox was buried by natural movement of dirt. Yet in the 1800’s and 1900’s locals said at mid-Winters Day the sun shone all the way to the end, despite physical proof that it didn’t and couldn’t. In the 1970’s/80s (I can’t remember and won’t look it up) further exploration found the roofbox, a slab that allowed light into the passage and briefly lights up the room at the end.

    It’s not 5000 years, but probably around half that.

  63. yodelyak says:

    Some settlements, (maybe some whole tribes) among the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest in Oregon/Washington were largely wiped out by the last earthquake/tsunami on their coast. Their oral histories reflected this fact, pretty loosely, as of when late 1900s anthropologists/historians got around to being curious what truth there was, and specifically included a tale about a woman whose entire people was wiped out while she was traveling to visit a neighboring people, and included a number of generations ago that she had lived. If you poke around, you might find out what the range of estimates were for when that earthquake happened, before geologists/ecologists/Japanese historians got involved and pegged it at Jan 21ish, 1700.

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