How Folklore Works

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].


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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  • American Folklore. "Folklore Definitions." (Dec. 15, 2014)
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