Oldest Oral Legend

I saw this piece on CNN, which mentioned that a supernova which occured some 700 years ago, is still spoken of in oral legends today. That got me to wondering what the oldest oral legend would be.

Probably, the poodle in the microwave, or the Microsoft Email tracking thing…Take your pick.

I think both of those go back to pre-columbian times.

My wild guess of the still-surviving ones, though passed down in writing these days, would be the legend of Gilgamesh, which is something like four or five thousand years old.

On preview, I see I prefer bdgr’s answer.

The oldest surviving ones would probably still be pre-historic and undateable, hunter-gatherer folklore and what have you. Hard to say.

It would appear that the answer has been ferreted out.

I’m not so sure. We know about the epic of Gilgamesh and mesopotamian mythology because of a protoliterate people who eventually obtained literacy late in the game (for the record, Gilgamesh himself doesn’t appear till the late Assyro-Babylonian period). What about peoples who never advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage and never achieved literacy? We can’t date their mythologies.

Stories of the first Chinese ruler Fu Xi (~2950 - ~2700 BC) reportedly date back as far as those of Gilgamesh (~2700 BC).

Not necessarily. In the article which inspired this question the oral legend was inspired by a supernova which we know from modern astronomical research to have occured some 700 years ago (and from a part of Africa where written language is a relatively new thing). If there’s some other oral legend out there which discusses either a major geologic event or something which can be verified by astronomical research, then we can pin down the rough origins of the legend.

Two possibilities:

  1. God made man from mud. This story (made famous in both Biblical and proto-Greek mythology) appears to be at least neolithic, popping up in Mesopotamian text. A reasonable story from a society that made everything out of mud.

  2. The great flood. Although there are flood legends globally (due largely to the fact that people tended to settle in flood plains) there does seem to be some consistency within the Babylonian/Biblical flood stories (which also appears in the Gilgamesh story).

True enough. We can tell the age of some legends if they point to externally verifiable events. But can we tell how old, say, the creation myth of the African San is?

Whoops. My post was in reply to Tuckerfan’s. Quote, prav, quote!

Possibly. IANAL (I am not a linguist), but every language evolves over time and I know that certain documents/stories/whatever you have been dated using the type of words involved. For example, if a tale from a Native American culture has a word which means “horse” then we know that the tale originated some time after 1492 (or at least parts of it). Also, if we know that Society A didn’t interact with Society B until X point in time, and that after that point, the languages borrowed words from one another, then a tale can be dated to a rough time period as well.

I’ve seen a map which gives the spread of the various languages and traces them all back to one “mother tongue” but I don’t remember any of the details.

Some people argue that the tale of Noah’s Ark is based on dam breaks from the glacial lake Missoula. That happened 12000 years ago, but is obviouly impossible to prove. And since it’s a religion thing, seperating the wheat from the crap is a bit difficult.

You may be thinking of the Indo-European language tree. This is a huge family of languages which includes most western and near eastern languages. This is the largest traceable family that I’m aware of. I don’t there is a holistic tree which can trace ALL human languages back to one “mother tongue,” as you called it (and maybe that’s not even what you meant) but this is probably what you saw.

Oral Roberts

Linda Lovelace :smiley:

The Deluge legends (e.g Noah, etc.) are generally believed to be the oldest surving legends and one of the oldest known versions appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it is probably even older than Gilgamesh as it appears in other cultures too for example, there was remrkably simlair Hellenic legend.

I always heard it was Beowulf

I’ve heard that certain Australian aborigines have a legend about an island that sunk into the ocean 10,000 years ago, but have no reputible verification of that.

Actually, you may be thinking of the formation of the Black Sea and its relation to the great Deluge legends. A couple years ago, there was a “Nova” episode about this where they took soil samples from the bottom of the Black Sea and found traces of human-built artifacts (e.g., pottery shards) dating from about 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. This has led to a theory that the Black Sea was originally a smaller land-locked freshwater lake during the Ice Age with a substantial population surrounding its shores. When the Ice Age ended, the ice caps melted and receded causing the ocean levels to rise. Eventually, a wall of salt water built up and flooded into the Black Sea basin.