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Folklore is the body of expressive culture, including tales, music, dance, legends, oral history, proverbs, superstitions, and so forth, common to a particular population, that comprise the traditions of that culture, subculture, or group. Scholars who study folklore are often called folklorists. Much of folklore study has been academic, classifying material and identifying original forms. Applied folklorists, on the other hand, use folklore and other traditional cultural material to address social problems.

As the world is increasingly globalized, preservation of traditional folklore and the ongoing development of new materials are important ways in which unique cultural expressions can be maintain and their wisdom transmitted to future generations.


Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559

Folklore generally refers to the body of material, in a variety of forms, that expresses the traditions of a particular culture. There is no clear-cut definition of the term "folklore," mainly because academics of different disciplines study the same material from completely separate perspectives. Scholars of literature focus primarily on structure, narrative style, content, and genre, while anthropologists view folklore as a means to understand the views of a culture. Thus, the founder of French folkloristic study, Arnold van Gennep, believed folklore was the key to understanding the creative force within small groups of societies. Both paradigms raise the question of whether folklore can be viewed as a common phenomenon and therefore broken into broad categories, or as specific cultural artifacts of a given society.

Folklorists tend to bridge both worlds, as, for example, Dan Ben-Amos attempted to create a comprehensive understanding of folklore for all disciplines by arguing that folklore is either "a body of knowledge, a mode of thought, or a kind of art."[1] While this thesis may not be as inclusively used as Ben-Amos hoped, modern scholars usually view folklore as both literature and unique cultural phenomena. Folklore "remains wholly within the control of its practitioners. It is theirs to remember, change, forget…is that which is at once traditional and variable."[2]

Study of Folklore

Photograph of William John Thoms

The term "folklore" was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William Thoms, who wanted to use an Anglo-Saxon term for what was then called "popular antiquities." The concept developed as part of the nineteenth-century ideology of romantic nationalism, leading to the reshaping of oral traditions to serve modern ideological goals. Johann Gottfried von Herder first advocated the deliberate recording and preservation of folklore to document the authentic spirit, tradition, and identity of the German people; the belief that there can be such authenticity is one of the tenets of the romantic nationalism that Herder developed.

Only in the twentieth century did ethnographers begin to attempt to record folklore without overt political goals. Standards of identification were devised, and every example was classified by place and date, with a view to determining the original forms as well as patterns of distribution. Later developments, based on "performance" analysis, regarded each form as an event that emerges from the interaction between performer and audience and which fulfills a particular role or function in the social group.

While the study of folklore remained strong in academic communities, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the discipline grew beyond "pure" research, to emerge as a movement that incorporated application and problem solving as one of its aims. In 1939, folklorists Benjamin A. Botkin and Alan Lomax coined the phrase "applied folklore," akin to "applied anthropology" and other applied social sciences, as the study concerned with the use of folklore and traditional cultural materials to address or solve real social problems.

Botkin's development of the approach emerged from his work on the collection by the Federal Writers' Project of oral narratives of former slaves, when he worked for the Library of Congress. He saw the dissemination of these materials as having the potential to improve race relations in the United States and to combat prejudice. The Abolition movement had similarly used the oral narratives of escaped slaves, such as those collected by William Still in his Underground Railroad Records, to draw support for their cause. Botkin's landmark work, Lay My Burden Down (1945) was the first American book to treat oral testimonies as historical evidence, and it was another thirty years before this became accepted practice. Botkin also worked with Quaker activist Rachel Davis DuBois to develop public programs to improve race and ethnic relations by incorporating cultural practices and materials into neighborhood events, such as festivals and block parties.

In the 1960s, other American folklorists began to apply knowledge gained from folkloric sources to address social issues, most notably drawing on folk medicine in the teaching and practice of holistic and cross-cultural approaches to medicine and public health. Folklorists also began to work as consultants in city planning, gerontology, economic development, multicultural education, conservation, and other fields.

An outgrowth of applied folklore was the early 1970s movement known as "public folklore," generally credited to Archie Green, the American Folklore Society, and the creation of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The movement was initially called "public sector folklore." Soon after its creation, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other non-profit institutions vested large interest in folklore.

Public folklorists are engaged with the documentation, preservation, and presentation of traditional forms of folk arts, craft, folk music, and other genres of traditional folklife. They work in "folk arts in the schools" programs, presenting master traditional artists to primary and secondary schools in demonstrations and residences. They develop apprenticeship programs to foster the teaching of traditional arts by recognized masters. They also present traditional music on radio programs such as American Routes on Public Radio International. Occasionally they produce documentary films on aspects of traditional arts, and also sponsor performance artists who sing, dance, and dramatically present oral folklore to schools and communities. Public folklorists have also become involved in economic and community development projects.

As the modern world becomes more industrial and moves farther away from traditional lifestyle communities, the folklorist is in a unique position to help integrate older traditions into modern life as well as continue to collect previously lost genres of folklore.

Categories of Folklore

There are numerous different types of folklore, ranging from such diverse examples as jokes and riddles, to animal tales and even some rites of passage. Many genres overlap, and sometimes the distinction between one type and another can be quite arbitrary.

Nearly every culture that has existed has its own set of lore, and one of the broadest categories is those of ethnic or national folklore. For example, the Arthurian legends can be viewed as both an example of English and Welsh ethnic folklore; urban legends and tall tales are almost exclusively American; fairy tales are the result of German ethnic tradition; while the Arabian Nights can be viewed as a regional Middle Eastern tale. The following is a list of the most common types of folklore, listed from the most general to those that are more specific.


A legend is typically a romantic adventure story told in an historical context, usually believed to be true. It is typically concerned with heroes and villains, epic battles, and great feats of courage. Usually the hero is an iconic symbol of a particular ethnicity or nationality.

Legends are usually set in places and times long past, evolving as they are passed down from one generation to the next, originally in the form of oral tradition. However, when writing became an important archival and artistic method, legends were reproduced time and again, changing with each author or writer's own background and perspective, surpassing cultural and national boundaries. More recently, through the media of film and television, legends have become perhaps the most long-lasting and popular of all types of folklore.

A sculpture of Excalibur, the sword given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake

The Arthurian tales of Great Britain are an excellent example of the cross-cultural nature of legends. King Arthur, the symbol of chivalry and the representation of the "noble knight," began with early British writers who believed Arthur to be a real, historical figure. Although there is no historical account of King Arthur to verify such claims, that did not stop British writers throughout the ages from using him in various works, marking his place among the most popular of British folklore. Twentieth-century cinematic versions of Arthur, however, place greater emphasis on Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, and the Excalibur sword, with little being said of Arthur's role in the equally popular Holy Grail legends.

Not all legends, however, are culturally diffused on such a scale. The legends of the French warrior Roland, the Sumerian prince Gilgamesh, and the character Sinbad of the Arabian Nights legends all are important literary figures that have not been adapted and circulated to the extent of King Arthur. These and others have remained within certain groups of people, and have not been included in the broader literary or cinematic world.


Myths share many common characteristics with legends in that they usually depict events of long ago and persons of epic proportion. However, myths have two distinguishing features. First, myths usually incorporate forces beyond the physical world, such as deities and supernatural powers. Second, they can be etiological, explaining the origins of such things as the world and humankind. Myth more often than legend involves archetypal characters, as the literary scholar Joseph Campbell claimed. So basic is the idea of the journey of a hero to an underworld, in an attempt to attain powers that he can bring back to save his world from an evil, that the paradigm has appeared again and again in all forms of literature for thousands of years.

The structure and use of myth usually overlaps with religion, as both attempt to detail the metaphysical, and to explain how and why things are the way they are. In fact, every religion has its own mythology: for Christians, the New Testament represents the oral traditions of Jesus Christ and the missionary movement of his apostles after his crucifixion; while the stories of Siddhartha's attainment of enlightenment is the central mythology for Buddhists.

Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, 1868

The label of myth implies a fictitious story, but that is because historically myth has been used to describe any figurative story that does not pertain to the dominant beliefs of the time, and therefore does not carry the same status as those dominant beliefs. Thus, Roman religion is called "myth" by modern Christians. Some of the most famous myths in Western culture come from ancient Greece and usually involve gods or demi-gods, and the origins of such things as fire (the story of Prometheus) and the presence of evil in the world (the story of Pandora's box).

Another distinguishing feature of myths is the non-human creatures that are incorporated into the narratives. The dragon is perhaps the most popular—a large, serpentine beast that has wings and breathes fire. Others include the centaur, chimera, elf, fairy, gnome, griffin, leprechaun, pegasus, pixie, sphinx, unicorn, and troll.

Folk Song

A folk song may be defined as "a song belonging to the folk music of a people or area, often existing in several versions or with regional variations."[3] Folk songs are perhaps the most culturally diffused of all types of folklore. Musical traditions and styles were culturally traded long before the rise of written works and the advent of recording technologies.

As early as the eighteenth century, interest in regional ballads and music was on the rise in Europe, but perhaps the most significant means of cultural diffusion came about because colonialism forced the meetings of different cultures. Slaves brought musical traditions to America, and are responsible for some of the most famous American folk songs. In the twentieth century, artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie created their own music in the folk style.


The earliest festivals revolved around harvests, honoring of the dead, or celebration. The communal activity was often accompanied by music, dance, and storytelling, the most common place and time of folklore transmission. Often the festival itself was based on a particular folkloric belief or tradition, such as the Dionysus festivals of ancient Greece. One of the most famous and widely celebrated festivals is that of Halloween. Although its origins lie in Pagan rituals to ward off evil spirits that arose once a year along with the tradition of All Hallow's Eve, it has come to be a largely secular, children's holiday of dress-up and scary stories. This is not uncommon as Thanksgiving, Guy Fawkes day, and New Year festivals have changed meaning and celebratory style over the years.


Superstition is the belief in the causality of seemingly unrelated events and actions, known to anthropologists as "sympathetic magic" in that it is the belief that the actions of a person can influence events beyond the boundaries of time and space. It is a tradition rooted in the belief of larger, metaphysically controlling forces in the universe, whether a particular version of God or just the idea of luck.

Famous examples of superstition include bad luck resulting from breaking a mirror, opening an umbrella inside, or spilling salt, a fear of the number 13, and even the theater tradition of referring to Shakespeare's Macbeth as "the Scottish Play" to avoid bringing on the curse associated with the play.

Fairy Tale

A European folk tale, Little Red Riding Hood; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911
A German folk tale, Hansel and Gretel; illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

Fairy tales are universally seen as fictitious, often beginning with the phrases "Once upon a time" or "In a land far, far away," and recounting stories of heroines in danger, princes in disguise, magic, adventure, and anthropomorphic animals and creatures. Conceived in Germany around the seventeenth century, the fairy tale is a type of folklore that has changed dramatically over time. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, known as the Brothers Grimm, started to collect orally transmitted German tales in the early seventeenth century, publishing the first series as Kinder- und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales") in 1812. These early fairy tales were vastly different from the children's tales of today. Most were dark stories revolving around such moral lessons as obeying your parents and rejecting evil.[4]

The familiar fairy tale Hansel and Gretel may primarily be one of mundane instruction regarding forest safety or secondarily a cautionary tale about the dangers of famine to large families. However, its latent meaning may evoke a strong emotional response due to the widely understood themes and motifs such as “The Terrible Mother,” “Death,” and “Atonement with the Father.” There can be both a moral and psychological scope to the work, as well as entertainment value, depending upon the nature of the teller, the style of the telling, the ages of the audience members, and the overall context of the performance.

The popularity of the Walt Disney Company lies in its reproductions of such classical fairy tales as Beauty and Beast, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, adding a musical component to the genre.

Tall Tale

A tall tale is a form of traditionally American folklore. Often a light, comical story of some larger-than-life person who achieves superhuman deeds, they are often stories of national pride and cultural iconography. Johnny Appleseed is credited with traveling the vast wilderness of early America, spreading apple seeds wherever he went, thus being the source of the numerous apple trees in the northeastern U.S. Paul Bunyan and his ox Baby Blue are giant characters credited with the creation of such famous landmarks as the Grand Canyon, and Pecos Bill was the image of frontier, cowboy life. Most of these stories are complete fiction, but at least one, Johnny Appleseed, is based on an actual person, John Chapman, whose life work as a nurseryman was a great deal more practical than depicted in the tale. [5]

Epic Poetry

Like myth and legend, epic poetry deals with heroes of long ago, supernatural powers, deities, and grandiose battles. The main difference between them is that epic poetry tends to be the end result of a series of oral traditions. Epic poetry as a form of literature consists of a novel length poem, originally sang in ceremony. It involves the author's invocation of a muse, or God to speak through the author. The most famous of epic poets, ancient Greece's Homer, was believed to have produced such classics as the Iliad and the Odyssey by condensing long-standing Greek myth, legend, and tradition into a structured narrative. Virgil's The Aeneid brings together the traditions of Greek and Trojan legend as well as Roman belief to detail the founding of Rome, and John Spencer's The Faerie Queen bridges Arthurian legend, Protestant ideology, and British lore into a classical work of fiction. John Milton's Paradise Lost not only uses the dogma of the Bible, but also incorporates Puritan traditions and beliefs, and most modern-day conceptions of Satan and the Garden of Eden story come more from Milton's interpretation than the Bible.

The majority of evolution in epic poetry comes from translation. Epic poetry is not as easily disseminated and used in an existing culture; rather it acts as its own cultural artifact that may inspire new forms of lore and fiction, while the original work is hardly changed in the way other forms of lore are. However, change does occur and is due mostly to the variations of numerous translations, depending upon the translator's bias, and the difference between the phonetics and semantics of languages.

Urban Legend

An urban legend is perhaps the newest form of folklore to emerge, and one of the most unique. While it can be found in most industrialized countries, one of its distinguishing factors, it is most widespread in America. Urban legends are typically a collection of oral stories passed around from person to person, never as a firsthand account of events; typically the stories are related as happening to someone three or four times removed in association to the storyteller. Most urban legends are merely variations of similar stories, characteristically with a twist at the end, some unforeseen event that is either ironic or supernatural.[6] The driver who picks up a hitchhiker who vanishes before the trip is complete and is revealed to be a ghost is a classic example, as is the story of a recently escaped serial killer or mental patient, sometimes with a hook for a hand, who terrorizes a young couple parked in a car in a wooded, deserted area.

Such stories often mask a current of morality—underage sexual activity being coupled with violence and tragedy, perhaps due to early America's more conservative, morally strict society.


  1. Dan Ben-Amos, "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context," Journal of American Folklore, 1971.
  2. Henry Glassie, The Spirit of Folklore Art (Harry N. Abrams, 1989, ISBN 978-0810915220).
  3. folksong The Free Dictionary. Retrieved February 28, 2023.
  4. Brothers Grimm, Oliver Loo (trans.), The Original 1812 Grimm Fairy Tales: A New Translation of the 1812 First Edition Kinder und Hausmärchen - Childrens and Household Tales (Lulu, 2014, ISBN 978-1312591899).
  5. Richard Gast, The Real Johnny Appleseed Adirondack Almanac, October 17, 2021. Retrieved February 28, 2023.
  6. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003, ISBN 978-0393951691).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baron, Robert, and Nicholas R. Spitzer (eds.) Public Folklore. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. ISBN 978-1560981428
  • Botkin, B. A. (ed.). Lay My Burden Down. Delta, 1994. ISBN 978-0385311151
  • Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. ISBN 978-0393951691
  • Feintuch, Burt (ed.) Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. ISBN 978-0813116358
  • Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams, 1989. ISBN 978-0810915220
  • Green, Archie. Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. ISBN 0807849200
  • Grimm, Brothers, Oliver Loo (trans.). The Original 1812 Grimm Fairy Tales: A New Translation of the 1812 First Edition Kinder und Hausmärchen - Childrens and Household Tales. Lulu, 2014. ISBN 978-1312591899
  • Hufford, Mary (ed.). Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0252020605
  • Jones, Michael Owen (ed.). Putting Folklore to Use. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0813108186

External links

All links retrieved April 1, 2024.


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