In the classic Scandinavian folktale “The Twelve Wild Ducks,” also known as “The Twelve Brothers” in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a wicked old Queen is jealous of her daughter-in-law’s beauty. In a rage of envy she kidnaps her own grandchildren during the night and throws them into a snake pit. She then tells her son that his young wife is actually a witch who has eaten their children and demands that she be burned at the stake. In the end, the daughter-in-law gains the upper hand and the wicked Queen is bound between twelve wild horses who rip her body into pieces.

Such stories were widespread in Scandinavia and northern Germany during the 18th and 19th centuries. A common theme in many of them–especially the more popular ones such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” or “Sleeping Beauty”–is of a beautiful damsel who is persecuted by an older mother-in-law or stepmother who mourns her own lost youth. Invariably her plot fails and the evil matriarch is sent to a grisly death. Similar tales can be found in Russia, India, and Japan. For an 18th century peasant the moral could not have been more clear: intergenerational conflict leads to disaster. But could there be something deeper behind the “collective unconscious” found in so many of these tall tales?

Read more at Scientific American.

Published On: September 5, 2012

Eric Michael Johnson

Eric Michael Johnson

Eric Michael Johnson received his masters degree in evolutionary anthropology and he pursued his dissertation on bonobo (Pan paniscus) behavioral ecology before switching fields to work on the history of evolutionary biology in late-19th century England, Europe and Russia. In addition to publishing original research in such places as the Journal of Human Evolution and American Journal of Physical Anthropology, he has written on evolutionary topics for general audiences at SlateTimes Higher EducationDiscoverWiredPsychology Today and many others. He is a longtime advocate of science communication online and has spoken at academic as well as social media conferences on how important it is for scientists to reach out to the public by engaging readers with a compelling narrative. He can be found on Twitter at @ericmjohnson and his blog, The Primate Diaries, is currently hosted by Scientific American. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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