Many of us are sceptical about stories telling of events which seem to have happened before writing was invented. They are written off (the pun is intended) as myths, sagas, folklore or legends. Whatever you call them, they are not history. Are they?

How old is that?

I cannot put a date to this, as writing occurred in different places at different times. In Britain, we usually credit the Romans with introducing writing to our ancestors, along with baths, roads, laws and stone buildings. Some people say Ogham script was used here before then, but was not very widespread.

What about Jewish stories?

The earliest stories in the Bible seem to relate to times before writing was known in the Middle East. Some people claim that they were written by other civilizations before being adopted by the Jewish people. Even so, if Moses is to be given the credit for the first five books of the Old Testament, I have to say that many of the stories cover events long before he was born in a society that did not have writing, as far as we know. There is a similar problem if you say someone else wrote the books in question.

Does this mean that old Celtic legends and the book of Genesis, for instance, must be regarded as fiction, or at least highly unreliable?

Not necessarily!

I have not been watching the recent series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, because I so enjoyed the original TV version that I cannot imagine this one being an improvement. I would sooner watch repeats of the first one. In that story, we see American slaves keeping some memory of Africa alive by African words and by stories about their ancestors.

But they were illiterate!

These words and stories were passed down the generations orally. By the 1960’s a lot had been lost, but the remnants were enough to enable Alex Haley to find where his family came from. A village in the Gambia. Once he got there, he found local storytellers had kept the same stories alive too. The difference was that the Africans had more accurate details, because they had a tradition of learning things by heart and reciting them exactly. I understand that this is true in many societies which do not have written languages.

Perhaps the Celts and the Jews also retold stories exactly until someone wrote them down, centuries later.

When I come across old stories, nowadays, I treat them with a lot of respect, in spite of my natural caution, even scepticism. There may be more to many of them than I used to think.