How Folklore Works


Mexican folk dancers swirl their colorful skirts at a performance in Los Angeles. Folklore is a mix of music, dance, stories, celebration traditions and other rituals.
Mexican folk dancers swirl their colorful skirts at a performance in Los Angeles. Folklore is a mix of music, dance, stories, celebration traditions and other rituals.
Larry Dale Gordon/Getty Images

The tale of Brer Rabbit. The rain dance performed by many Native American tribes. Those silly chain letters that implore you to pass them on, stat, lest misfortune strike. All of these are examples of folklore, an all-encompassing, sort-of-hard-to-pin-down concept. Folklore is myth and legend, art and dance. It's rituals and special birthday meals, how you treat a cold and the ghost stories you told each other as kids. It permeates every culture on Earth, connecting people to their collective past while helping them make sense of the present. Folklore doesn't have to mean something that is old or "rural." It's constantly changing, always fresh, yet always grounded in the past. The American Folklore Society notes that it has no official definition for "folklore" because folklorists define it in so many different ways.

Folklore has been around as long as people have. Yet the term "folk-lore" (as it was originally styled) wasn't coined until 1846, when English scholar William J. Thoms came up with the word [source: The Ohio State University]. Previously, more awkward phrasing was used to describe it, such as "popular antiquities" and "bygones." Originally passed on orally, folklore (tales, proverbs, jokes) became written as well around the 16th and 17th centuries [sources: Jaffe, Thompson]. Before that, writers might have drawn inspiration from folktales, but they did not actually record them.

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Many forms of folklore are common to people around the world, even if they don't live near one another, speak the same language or have any discernable connection. Frogs and toads, for example, are at the center of innumerable pieces of folklore. In many Chinese stories, the central trickster is a toad; in medieval Europe, frogs were seen as evil imps who accompanied witches. But they were also viewed as masters of transformations – most everyone in Western culture knows the tale of the frog prince [source: Wanner].

Similarly, many cultures have creation myths involving a great flood [source: House]. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from folklore, then, is that it shows people are essentially the same no matter where they live, or how long ago they walked the earth.

Who Creates Folklore?

Much folklore is passed on by children, for instance in the form of chants recited while jumping rope.
Much folklore is passed on by children, for instance in the form of chants recited while jumping rope.
Fuse/Thinkstock

Since folklore comes from people -- from us -- it can be found everywhere. And since people can be divided into countless types of groups (sex, religion, age, ethnicity, nationality or income), you're likely part of many different groups that create folklore. Three of the most basic are children, families and communities [sources: Jaffe, Thompson]:

  • Children: Perhaps surprisingly, children play an important role in passing on folklore. Games such as hopscotch, hide-and-seek and steal the bacon are all forms of folklore carried over from century to century by kids. So is the jump-rope chant, "Blue bells, cockle shells, eevey, ivy, over," and the various methods kids use to decide who is "it," such as counting off to "Bubble gum, bubble gum, in a dish, how many pieces do you wish?" Children also pass on riddles, dance songs, singing games and sayings, almost all orally or by imitation.
  • Families: The family is a rich source of folklore. All of your family traditions form your own personal lore: How you celebrate the holidays, the games you play on birthdays, the foods you cook, the lullabies you sing to babies. So are the stories of your ancestors: How your family immigrated to the U.S. or other countries; what different family members did and said; who fought in a war or other conflict. Family folklore also includes material possessions such as an old steamer trunk, Christmas ornaments and grandma's kolacky recipe. In some cultures, namely Native American and West African, one community member was responsible for orally passing on to each family, through story or song, the history of their ancestors.
  • Communities: Whether urban or rural, rich or poor, communities are also a wellspring of folklore. How does your town celebrate the holidays? Are there street decorations, parades, special foods or store events? What about important local foods or industries? Sheboygan, a heavily German city in Wisconsin, holds an annual Bratwurst Day festival to celebrate a favorite food, while New Orleans hosts a jazz festival to honor its musical roots. And then there are local customs. People in Iceland, home to innumerable natural hot springs, meet friends and neighbors in their country's ubiquitous thermal baths to catch up on local news and gossip. In Pennsylvania, deer-hunting is a popular activity. These are all forms of community folklore.

What Are Some Folklore Genres?

Guests at Dinka wedding in Sudan listen to a traditional story teller.
Guests at Dinka wedding in Sudan listen to a traditional story teller.
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Folklorists -- those who study folklore -- classify the subject according to various genres, or categories. The broadest categories are oral, material and belief [sources: Jaffe, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]:

  • Oral: One of the most popular folklore genres, oral folklore encompasses song, dance and all forms of "verbal art," including poetry, jokes, riddles, proverbs, fairy tales, myths and legends. Of course, many of these "verbal" art forms now exist in written form (e.g., fairy tales). But in the beginning, they were passed on orally. That's why many of them contain devices to help people remember them. One such device is repetition. Think of the story of the "Three Little Pigs," where the pigs keep building houses, which the wolf keeps saying, "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down." Folk tales also contain formulaic expressions to aid memory, such as "Once upon a time" and "They lived happily ever after."
  • Material: Objects you can touch are included in the material folklore classification. So this means personal items such as home decorations, special clothing and jewelry. But it also encompasses traditional family recipes, foods and musical instruments -- e.g., the Sioux's chegah-skah-hdah, a type of rattle, and the bodhrán, an Irish frame drum. Vernacular artwork, textiles and architecture (using local materials and serving local needs) are also included in material folklore. Examples include the 1920s shotgun houses popular in the American South and the raised horreros, or granaries, found in Galicia, Spain.
  • Belief: While this points to religion, belief also covers rituals such as tossing rice at a bride and groom to wish them good luck, and the Jewish tradition of giving bread, sugar and salt as a housewarming gift. Some folklorists classify this genre as behavioral or cogitative, and include the way folklore beliefs affect your thought process and behavior. Here's an example: A young driver rear-ends you, and you're about to tell her off. Then you remember the golden rule – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- and instead you calmly accept her apology. That's behavioral folklore in action.

Similarities and Differences in Folklore Around the Globe

The world is rich with folklore. And while much folklore is specific to a region, language or community, it can also span the globe. Let's look at some examples of regional folklore first.

In Southeast Asia, the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Thais all share a myth about a rabbit in the moon who is using a mortar and pestle. In the Chinese tale, the rabbit is making medicine. In the Japanese and Korean versions, he's crafting rice cakes. In the Thai tale, he is dehusking rice. Never mind exactly what he's doing; a rabbit is in the moon with his mortar and pestle. (It's based on what notion that when you look at the moon you can see the shape of a rabbit with a mortar and pestle). Folklorists note similar tales among neighboring peoples isn't surprising, as stories can easily cross borders. Plus, any given "people" may have lived in nearby areas in previous eras [source: ColorQ World].

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Another regional similarity in folklore involves numbers. In Europe, most folktales revolve around the number three, possibly as a nod to the Christian doctrine of the trinity, which says God exists as three separate entities -- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, European tales might feature three brothers or three wishes. Native American myths also feature a common numeral, but it's the number four, said to represent their homage to the earth and its four directions: north, south, east and west [source: House].

Interestingly, you can also find similar tales in countries far apart from one another. Stories featuring composite creatures such as mermaids and centaurs are common in Cameroon, Greece and Malaysia; tales of underwater civilizations have long been told in Peru and China; and the people of Brazil and Vietnam have traditions of stories about animals morphing to shape-shifters. This phenomenon may be another example of how people are the same the world over -- that humans share a common imagination [source: ColorQ World].

Humans also share a need to explore certain themes. Thus, the vast majority of cultures have stories about ghosts, the resurrection of the dead and the origin of the world. In addition, most cultures have spawned tales to explain the more intriguing creatures that live among us. Frogs and toads, as mentioned earlier, are commonly used in folktales, most likely because their life cycles involve the transformation from tadpole to adult [source: Wanner].

The bottom line? Folklore, common or unique, is everywhere, just waiting to be passed on, tweaked or created anew. Time to get going and do your part.

Author's Note: How Folklore Works

I'm part-Bohemian. One of our enduring family stories is about an ancestor who was secret royalty. The baby boy, an illegitimate love child, was supposedly dropped off in the middle of the night to my Bohemian peasant ancestors, who raised him. Every year until the boy turned 18, a coach came in the night and gave my ancestors some money for his upkeep. Some say stories of secret royal connections are common among Bohemians. If so, this story is part of their community folklore. If not, it's part of my family folklore. Now I just need to determine if I resemble any of the current crop of European royals ...

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Sources

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