From Cinderella to The Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty to Rapunzel, fairy tales have been a beloved part of literature throughout history — just ask any kid from 3 to 93. In fact, most of us know the stories by heart — from "once upon a time" to "happily ever after"!

But what exactly is a fairy tale? And how long have they been around? You might be surprised to learn that they've been around a lot longer than previously thought, and they feature more than just fairies.

Fairy tales are folk tales or fables that feature a wide variety of characters and usually have some magical element to them. For example, in addition to fairies, you'll find fairy tales filled with princes and princesses, kings and queens, witches and ogres, dwarfs and giants, elves and dragons, and all sorts of talking animals.

These characters find themselves in magical worlds where animals talk, lamps contain genies, princesses sleep for a century, mirrors reveal the fairest one of all, and grandmothers aren't always what they appear to be. Indeed, if you can imagine a fantastic, magical situation, there's probably a fairy tale that includes it.

Today, a visit to the library will reveal dozens and dozens of books filled with fairy tales. That wasn't always the case, though. The earliest fairy tales were told from one generation to the next over and over again before they were ever written down.

Eventually, fairy tales were collected and written down across many different cultures. Historians who have studied fairy tales have been amazed to discover how similar some of the stories are despite the vast differences and distances between countries.

For example, take the simple tale of Cinderella. Researchers have uncovered similar versions of the basic Cinderella story in countries such as England, France, Egypt, Iceland, Siberia, China, Korea, and Vietnam. Some experts believe there could be hundreds of versions of this same story, each one with unique aspects based upon the culture it comes from.

For many years, experts believed that fairy tales dated back to the early 16th or 17th century. This estimate was based upon when they were first written down, allowing for several generations of oral tradition prior to first appearing in writing.

Recently, however, researchers have used techniques from biologists to study the words used in fairy tales across cultures. Their findings suggest that many fairy tales are thousands of years older than previously thought.

For example, Jack and the Beanstalk can be traced back to a group of stories told over 5,000 years ago, when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages first split. Likewise, Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin could both be over 4,000 years old.

The oldest fairy tale, however, might be The Smith and the Devil, which features a blacksmith who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers. Researchers believe this ancient fairy tale could date back over 6,000 years to the Bronze Age!

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