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Photo of an illustration for the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood".

The wolf walks along with Little Red Riding Hood in this illustration for the folktale.

Photograph by The British Library Board, Getty Images

Rachel Hartigan Shea

National Geographic

PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 29, 2013

It's a story told around the world. Little Red Riding Hood goes to visit her grandmother, only to discover that a wolf has eaten the old lady, dressed in her clothes, and now plans to eat the little girl too.

What happens next depends on which version you hear: Was Little Red Riding Hood devoured? Did a passing huntsman cut her from the wolf's belly? Did she trick the wolf into letting her go outside? In parts of Iran, the child in peril is a boy, because little girls wouldn't wander out on their own. In Africa, the villain could be a fox or a hyena. In East Asia, the predator is more likely to be a big cat.

Where did the original story come from? Scholars have been puzzling over that for years. Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, thinks he's found the answer. In a paper published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, he argues that methods used to track the evolution of biological species can be applied to the evolution of folktales. National Geographic spoke with Tehrani about his hunt for the origins of this famous story.

Why did you think that a scientific method might work to determine the evolution of folk tales?

Folktales are like biological species: They literally evolve by descent with modification. They get told and retold with slight alterations, and then that gets passed on to the next generation and gets altered again.

In many ways the problem of reconstructing folklore tradition is very similar to the problem of reconstructing the evolutionary relationship of species. We have little evidence about the evolution of species because the fossil record is so patchy. Similarly, folktales are only very occasionally written down. We need to use some kind of method for reconstructing that history in the absence of physical evidence.

You used a methodology called phylogenetics. Can you explain what that is?

What you do with phylogenetics is you reconstruct history by inferring the past that's been preserved through inheritance. The descendants of ancestral species will resemble them in certain ways. You can figure out which features of a related group of organisms or folktales could be traced back to a common ancestor.

What are some of the theories about the origins of "Little Red Riding Hood"?

It's been suggested that the tale was an invention of Charles Perrault, who wrote it down in the 17th century. Other people have insisted that "Little Red Riding Hood" has ancient origins. There's an 11th-century poem from Belgium which was recorded by a priest, who says, oh, there's this tale told by the local peasants about a girl wearing a red baptism tunic who wanders off and encounters this wolf.

My results demonstrate that, although most versions that we're familiar with today descended from Perrault's tale, he didn't invent it. My analysis confirmed that the 11th-century poem is indeed an early ancestor of the modern fairy tale.

Map of versions of Little Red Riding Hood around the world.

Don't some scholars argue that the folktale came from Asia?

It's been suggested that the story may have originated in East Asia and spread westward, and as it spread west, it split into two distinct tales, "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Wolf and the Kids." People have long recognized that there's some kind of relationship between the two stories, but nobody's really been able to demonstrate what the nature of that relationship is. A popular theory is that they're both descended from Chinese tradition, because these Chinese tales have elements of both.

My analysis shows that, in fact, the East Asian versions aren't the source. If the East Asian tales were truly ancestral, we would expect them to resemble the older and ancestral variants of "The Wolf and the Kids" and "Little Red Riding Hood." But instead they are more like the modern fairy tale versions. For example, in the East Asian tales we find a version of the famous dialogue between the victim and the villain which goes, "What big eyes you have!" But my reconstructions of the prehistory of the tale suggest that this dialogue evolved relatively recently. This is supported by the fact that it's missing from the 11th-century poem, which is the earliest known variant.

Photo of a French trade card from approximately 1754 showing Little Red Riding Hood.
Photograph by Universal History Archive, Getty Images
Little Red Riding Hood, also known in some versions of the story as Little Red Cap, encounters the wolf in this turn-of-the-century French trading card.

What is the story of "The Wolf and the Kids"?

A nanny goat leaves her kids at home and tells them not to open the door for anyone. What she doesn't realize is that a wolf is outside the house and overhears her. While she's out, the wolf comes to the door and pretends to be the nanny goat. When he gets in, he eats the kids all up. At the end of the story, the nanny goat tracks him down, kills him, and cuts open his belly and frees her kids.

What makes stories about predators disguised as beloved relatives so appealing to different cultures around the world?

Ultimately, the predator is metaphorical. The stories are really about how people aren't always who they seem to be, which is a really important lesson in life. Even people that we think we can trust can actually be out to harm us. In fact, it's precisely because we trust them that we are vulnerable to what their harmful intentions might be toward us.

Why do the origins of these stories matter?

We could regard folktales as a marker of human history showing how different societies have interacted with one another and how people have moved around the world.

I think there's a bigger and more interesting question about human imagination. These folktales embody fantasies and experiences and fears. They're a really good way of reading, through the products of our imagination, what we really care about.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

21 comments
geobas light
geobas light

When I was a child my mother would tell me and my brothers to the story of Layla Little Red Riding Hood and my brother was afraid of the question for her grandmother Lily: ((why my grandmother, my big mouth?)) And is given Wolf: Because you're my food ..

Now remember those days, whenever we laugh a lot

The story actually very wise.

peggy byron
peggy byron

Great article! I've always enjoyed the Grimm's Brothers tales -  the original versions, with beheadings, draggings through the streets and other violent deaths of the bad guys. They taught lessons in a somewhat severe way, but modern versions have the evildoers repenting, being forgiven and everyone living happily ever after. I know I'm probably taking this a bit too far here but maybe those old stories, showing the fortunes of the good and the punishment of the bad, the greedy, the thieves, the liars, etc. were a better learning tool for society than the  wishy-washy tales our children hear today.

M. Chase
M. Chase

Interesting...Have you ever thought about how grim children's stories are? I was reading the actual story of the Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson and I was astonished at how gruesome it was! The same goes for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and, of course, The Little Red Riding Hood. I was reading the original Charles Perrault telling to some children, and they were horrified that the wolf ate the grandmother and then the huntsman came and chopped it up to get the granny out. 

Abs jones
Abs jones

Another story with different versions like this is the story of the tortoise and the hare, supposedly written by Aesop.  I have read similar stories, sometimes with the same animals, and sometimes with others, like snails or deers, from both Native American and African cultures (and maybe others too, I don't know).  So it would seem that either the story somehow was preserved since before humans crossed into the Americas, or they simply result from humans having similar imaginations across cultures.

robert brooke
robert brooke

Are there versions that have a grandfather rather than a grandmother as the relative being visited?Since there are versions that differ in the species of predator,it seems not unlikely  that some versions might have a grandfather.

Elaine Childers
Elaine Childers

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview because it reminded me of a short cultural comparison I did several years ago on "Cinderella".  When I was earning my MA in Folklore and Mythology from UCLA, I did a brief study on the changing nature of the "glass slipper", comparing stories from such diverse cultures as the Italian "original" and Inuit.  Interestingly, the footwear symbolizes that which is considered valuable in the different cultures.  For example, in the Italian version, the footwear is a glass slipper, symbolic of high social status and wealth.  However, in the Inuit version, the footwear is a well-made fur-lined boot found by the "greatest hunter", symbolic of high social status that accrues to those who preserve the tribe.  As a result, I absolutely agree that these global similarities result from our collective human imagination!

Kristina Simonoska
Kristina Simonoska

the wolf and the kids is actually called "the wolf and the 7 (baby goats?)". Their mother leaves them at home telling them not to open the door to nobody. Then the wolf comes saying I'm your mother open the door, but they won't. He buys chalk and eats it so his voice is changed and also he puts chalk on his hands to be white. The baby goats open the door, he eats 6 of them and the 7th is hidden in a wall-clock. The mother comes home and the hidden baby tells her what happend, they call the huntsman (I think) and he found the wolf sleeping, he cut his stomach, released the baby goats and put rocks instead of them. When the wolf woke up, he went to drink water from the well (I think) and since his stomach was too heavy from the rocks he fall inside and drowned.

Alex Gurney
Alex Gurney

Why isn't North America on the map? There are definitely versions told of little red riding hood there.

peng korry
peng korry

this told us how the folktales change!?


Jan Spruit
Jan Spruit

Though this is undoubtedly a fruitful approach, I still like to think that Carl Gustav Jung's idea that the same fairy tales could have originate independently in different parts of the world due to the common structure of the human mind is tempting.

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

This sort of analysis is groundbreaking.  Possibly, it could be applied to other types of long-lasting stories that are not necessarily folktales, such as reports of historical events, and the growth and spread of fundamental societal/religious beliefs.

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

This is a story that should be read to our children even today. The prederters today are the pimps, pedilfiles, child slavery, child prostitution,  custudy disputes, child killers, etc. The problem with this story as we see it is that the author of the article states that it is all about not being able to trust the people around us.  This being the case the story should be revised and made easier to get the point.  As a child we read this story but have always thought that it meant that wolves or other animals can be dangerous therefore stay out of the woods.  In no way did we give thought to the fact that  it meant people.  We learned that from other sources such as radio or newspapers, as well as  bad things that happened to other children or friends.

A. Law
A. Law

The trading card roughly translates into: "THE RIGHT MARKET: LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: But going into the woods, Little red riding hood encounter with a wolf, who asked him where he was going." But it doesn't make sense... Little red riding hood is apparently a masculine phrase or something, but in the picture it's a girl!! Confusing, yet still a cool trading card!!

andy walters
andy walters

is it not possible the red cap/cape was the amminita muscaria mushroom and the wolf a werewolf, which is the animal form that shaman/wizards took under the influence, it was something I heard a while ago and thought it to be an interesting way of interpreting the fairytale.

John Hickey
John Hickey

@Jan Spruit , I agree. I think Little Red Riding Hood is a good example of the kind of origination Jung focused on. The elements of the story symbolize and evoke primal archetypes of the child's half-knowing participation in the ending of her own innocence (she is wearing red), the most-trusted loved one and mother-figure (the grandmother) who changes into a devouring wolf,  and the hope of redemption.  Elements like this will find a story to express themselves in every human culture. 

M. Chase
M. Chase

@El Gabilon If you ask me, the moral of the story is to be stupid. Little Red Riding Hood is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer if, having met and had a conversation with the wolf in question on her way to the grandmother's home and then her grandmother turned out to have exactly the same characteristics the wolf she met only a few minutes earlier, wouldn't that say that she should run? No! It's just like in Disney's Little Mermaid when the bratty main character disobeyed her father and still got her way in the end. Bad moral. Similarly, Little Red Riding Hood allowed herself to be ditzy and stupid when faced with a furry, fanged, clawed, raspy voiced wolf wearing a nightdress. Not even the best disguise! And she didn't even learn her lesson! When the wolf, probably amazed at her stupidity attacked, the huntsman bursts in to save her and her grandmother, and life is happy as ever. How often does that happen in real life? I think this is a stupid story that teaches kids to be as stupid as they want because everything will work out in the end.

Ella-Vee Hoefling
Ella-Vee Hoefling

@El Gabilon  I am sorry to disagree with you because my parents told me the story of, “Little Red Riding Hood”, when I was a child of age three or four, (I am in my 60's now) and explained to me that more than one truth was to be found in this story.

In my infantile mind, I clearly remember immediately understanding that wolves and other animals could be tricky and ultimately dangerous, and that being alone in the woods was not a smart idea. However, my parents encouraged me to think about my personal safety beyond the animals in the woods.They used this story to teach me to think about deceit and people that lie, and that I should carefully choose those precious few who I would place my trust in during my long life. In short, my parents used the story of, “Little Red Riding Hood”, as an opportunity to make me question and think things through, to teach me some important truths about life and living it. The operative word here is "teach", the story was the vehicle, but my parents taught me to think about its lessons. 

So forget “revising the story to make it easier to get to the point”, the creativity of the story is to cause a child to think, and if a parent is smart, they will use it as a teaching tool.

Pamela Van Nest
Pamela Van Nest

@andy walters

Rather than werewolves, I have read that it was gnomes that generally appeared to those under the influence.  This was given as an explanation of the common depiction of a gnome together with the red cap mushroom. 

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