Introduction to Folklore: Definitions, examples, and implications for contemporary society



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Introduction to Folklore:

Definitions, examples, and

implications for contemporary society (rev. 1/23/07)
© Wade Tarzia. Some of this unit was written for this document, and some was extracted and adapted from the following source: Wade Tarzia, “Chapter 4: Myth and Folklore.” Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.” Raymond Scupin, ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 2000. 49-79); that material is © Prentice-Hall and will appear in 2007 in revised 2nd edition.
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Summary of Important Features of Folklore
What is Folklore?
● Folklore is a set of customs passed down the years in a specific community (beliefs, sayings, stories, songs, dance, objects, rituals), but here I focus on verbal art. Folklore then is the traditional stories handed down within a community; it preceded the invention of writing by thousands of years yet exists alongside written literature and film as a source of storytelling entertainment and social functions.
● Folklore is shared community knowledge and may be freely performed by any member of the community; with a few exceptions, nobody but the community “owns” folklore. In many ways, folklore is egalitarian because it is “of the folk” whereas many forms of written literature are under control of a ruling or elite social-class. As such, folklore may reflect unofficial yet popular opinions.
● Folklore also varies between performances because the social context each time may differ: storyteller skill, audience emotion, time, or place all affect what is told, how well it is told, how long or short it is, and what information (“messages”) is sent. Therefore any folklore item tends to be a “re-telling with new details” rather than a fresh new piece of art (although all art forms exist in some form of a tradition). These traits make folklore extremely adaptable and useful.
Folklore Genres
• Short sayings: jokes, proverbs, riddles;

• Anecdotes: personal stories based on facts but may include exaggeration or fantasy;

• Full narratives (stories, ballads), sometimes called fables or folktales, believed fictitious

• Myths: “sacred stories” believed to be true;

• Legends, have an element of local history but may involve supernatural elements.

• Non-verbal behaviors, such as customs, music, dance, handicrafts.


Form of Delivery
Folklore means “knowledge of the folk” and that usually implies traditions passed down by mimicking or word of mouth over the generations. Orally told stories tend to differ from written stories. The storyteller uses a variety of techniques to elaborate an oral story that would seem odd in written stories: details and episodes can be added or subtracted depending on who is in the audience and how interested the audience seems to be (think the way a long joke can be told at a party). The skills of a good actor may be involved, and the audience is also involved to some extent because they are present to “feedback” to the performer in the form of comments or emotional cues (smiles, frowns, nods). This is part of the context of folklore.
Folklore Structure
Except some of the shorter and informal (conversational) genres, much verbal folklore has a structure that permits convenient performance by a live storyteller.
Narrative episodes: The folktale usually is constructed of sequential episodes. Some episodes are “core episodes” and must always appear. Other episodes can be added or subtracted: added if the audience seems interested in having the tale stretched out, or not included if the audience seems impatient.
Example from a short genre: Short genres show a general structure if not distinct parts. “Light bulb” jokes show a “traditional structure” how many [blank] does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: [blank, usually a category of person that the joke accuses of stupidity].
Example from a story: folktales often have stock characters (wicked witch, orphan, princess, wizard, cow herd, intelligent animals, unforeseen helpers), objects (unusual or magical/amazing objects), obstacles, disguises, beginning in isolation or low social status then evolution to full community or higher social status, and sequence of necessary acts (plot) such as hero leaves safe community>hero encounters object and picks up (may be magical or useful later)> hero helps someone without being asked or forced>the helped person/animal later helps or gives advice to hero>hero encounters obstacle but uses cleverness or found object to overcome> these episodes can be similarly repeated with carrying actors/details> hero ends up with a symbol of maturation or success (restoration to family, marriage, wealth, etc.) (Spy films are good examples too).
Expansion of a folktale: Separate episodes can themselves to shortened or lengthened (“ornamented”) depending on audience interest and storyteller skills.
Example: the hero is simply described: “He stopped before the cave of the dragon and drew his sword; the sword shined with a light of its own and he called the dragon out in a loud voice.”
Example: the hero’s description is lengthened: “He stopped before the cave, whose entrance was taller than a fir tree and wider than the king’s palace gates. It took three strong men to carry his sword and two to lift the buckle of the sword belt, but this he drew as easily as he lifted his fork at dinnertime. The sword’s light reflected from the clouds, and the roosters on the farms crowed again as if a new sun had risen.”
Social Context
The environment affects any folklore item. Environment -- or “context” -- includes time (day, season), place (home, outside, work, play, holiday, party, etc.), and audience (who is listening). Some content made be included to send specific “messages” depending on what the audience make-up is. For example, if someone in the audience has not been acting “properly,” the storyteller might tell a story or add a detail that seems to refer to that person in the audience. Since folklore is used to help small groups hold together, this method enforces social norms without making direct accusations that could lead to social disorder.
Variety in Folklore: variation of details alongside

repetition of general elements
Folklore differs from modern literature in that folklore has no owner except for the community. Anyone can tell a joke or legend (but not anyone can claim to have written “Hamlet” -- only Shakespeare can). Because folklore can be told by anyone, it has acceptable degrees of variance, unlike a written story. Variance occurs because folklore may be told under various conditions, and so the story can be made to fit context. For example, different people are nearby each time a folklore item is told, so the teller changes the story so some people are not offended. The time may be different; farming communities used have more time in the winter after harvest, and that is when the longest stories were told. People sitting around a campfire may want to hear longer stories, as opposed to people during a 15 minute break at work who have tie only for short anecdotes. Some tellers are skillful and can extend a story or joke without killing it, and others are no and can get away with only a short performance before the audience walks away. All these conditions affect folklore and are part of the details we need to consider.
Folklore Functions
• Demonstrates social norms and creates social cohesion (sometimes us vs. them function).
• Shows models of emulation and avoidance
• Preserves group knowledge, both of philosophical and “practical” nature (folk beliefs of capitalism in USA, occupational folklore of certain groups: firefighters, waitresses, tradespeople)
• Psychological benefits of some story telling patterns in folk tales (idea = the world supports the human eventually)
• Function of exploring nature of truth and the world in legend (idea = the world can be uncertain)
Folklore and Literature/Film
Folklore as a process of re-using constantly modified yet in some cases very ancient thought-patterns in a culture can blend perfectly with modern customs. In fact, folklore was always “modern” but because our culture is capable of preserving things from the past in a museum-like way, we are sometimes blinded to the growth of new folklore genres and contexts, and the continuation of folk practices right into the midst of contemporary society of all sorts: farms, factories, offices, laboratories, locker rooms, living rooms. There is limited number of story patterns in the world, but the basic patterns of stories are often quite ancient in a region or culture ancient (quest, initiation, rite of passage, influence of supernatural world, defense against monster, magical helpers, rags-to-riches, etc.). Thought experiment: how is a modern spy film very like a folktale in pattern?
Differences between written stories and oral stories:
In oral traditions, the community has control (a live audience who can respond, and a regular audience of the same people in the community),
• Oral stories are performative, thus dramatic (unless oral stories are recorded into print). Besides the storyteller, the audience can interact with the performance. Creativity and change is possible in folklore but often at a slower rate and in less drastic ways than literary traditions because “tradition” acts as a gatekeeper preventing wild and idiosyncratic changes to rapidly affect itself.
• The written story created by a literate writer is more stable, and has more of a social context of reader-isolation. The writer is free from direct audience influence. During creation, the writer has more time to prepare and craft, thus free from live performance more variety may be possible; writing has changed our notions of tradition, innovation, and circulation: now editors and publishers can control what the public sees, which introduces the possibility for social control; the audience becomes “consumers” so their buying habits can control what the publishers publish. Therefore, in a literate society, a small number of people control what a larger number read; in folk culture, a larger number of people, over time, controls what the community hears.
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The issues above are discussed a greater detail below. I also include an expansion about the legend genres for my students doing projects in that area.



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Expanded Discussion
Folklore Definition
... “[F]olklore” is another term that, like “myth,” is often given a negative connotation in popular usage. Folklore does not mean ‘falsehood’ or ‘opinion held only by uneducated or credulous people.’ Folklore is many other fascinating things, though, and you experience them every day -- such as customs, beliefs, short sayings, and narration shared by people who belong to a common social group. ... folklore has existed in the past (perhaps is nearly as old as humankind) and still thrives today. More specific to the topic of this chapter: much of the communication of religion and myth has propagated (and still does in many areas) through the folklore process. Folklore...is the knowledge of ‘the people’...
Folklore (the lore/knowledge of ‘folk’) is a body of common knowledge, performed in certain social contexts according to certain methods of performance. Folklore exists in the minds of groups of people and takes shape when uttered or otherwise communicated. It is not the property of any single individual but is rather commonly ‘owned’, passed on (often by hearing it told), and able to be used by anyone that belongs to the group that shares a folklore tradition (the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ will be considered here as being synonymous with ‘folklore’).
...After a story has been recorded, it is under the predominant control of a small number of the elite class of a society (including political leaders, priests, scholars, and editors). When knowledge is controlled by the few as opposed to large numbers of the “folk,” a social group has fewer opportunities to contribute to shared knowledge, a situation that is “anti-folk,” so to speak. Yet most [pieces of folklore], even when they exist in books, began as traditional narratives; they still carry some of the marks of those traditions... In addition, some scholars do not draw strict lines between folklore and written texts, for good reasons: both can be related by defining the people who use folklore -- the folk group, the consideration of which helps us understand what folklore is and why it is important.
Folklore within Folkgroups
The idea of the ‘folk group’ unites both oral and textual narratives under the folklore category. The basic premise that underlies folk groups is that folklore is a function of shared identity. As defined by Alan Dundes, the folk group is that group of people using a tradition that is built around at least one common factor such as occupation or religion. The folk group might then be a regional complex of tribal villages in the mountains of New Guinea, or the students on the third floor of a college dormitory, or a group of people meeting weekly to sew quilts and converse, or a company’s softball team, or subcontractors (carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians) who meet periodically to build houses, as well as just the plumbers, just the roofers, etc. The important point, here, is that we all belong to folk groups of one kind or another. When some number of people share a belief or way of life and communicate about it (have a shared identity), a folk group is formed, and folklore -- the group’s shared property consisting of beliefs, sayings, jokes, anecdotes, stories, songs, rituals, and material artifacts -- is born.i ...
Once, the definition of folklore was restricted to ‘orally transmitted beliefs, sayings, and stories within small groups’ especially traditional agricultural societies.ii This definition still describes well much folklore around the world. However most folklorists now broaden the definition to include many kinds of communities, from farming villages to factory and office workers. Similarly, many kinds of texts are now admitted into folklore study, such as printed texts and broadcast media.iii Thus the range of potential folklore materials is huge. In any case, the most important common aspect of all folklore is that the beliefs, sayings, stories, and art are the property of the folk group and can be transmitted by any member of the group, usually with only minor variations acceptable for the specific folk group and genre.
The Joke as an Example of Everyday Folklore Use
Jokes, which are one of the most common forms of folklore in modern Western societies, are a good example of folklore. Although the individual number of jokes is countless, they actually follow a much smaller number of forms. The names and characters may change, but jokes follow a somewhat predictable structure. The ‘light bulb’ jokes follow the formula, “How many [certain category of people] does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answers and characters change but the essential form and function (casting derision on a certain category of person) remain largely unchanged. And anyone is ‘allowed’ to tell such a joke; it is common property.
But with that common property comes unwritten ‘rules’ of use. Indeed, if folklore is to represent the important ideas of a group of people, then individuals must not be free to change the lore idiosyncratically or drastically. Changes in a folklore item are possible because of a combination of the story teller’s creative impulse (usually restrained within the ‘traditional rules’ of performance) and the existence of an audience that has certain expectations of how performance within their tradition ought to proceed. The audience listens and often judges and makes their judgments known, and the teller is affected by the comments and attitude of the audience (think of someone laughing or frowning when you tell a joke). The teller has some latitude to change a story or its dramatic presentation if she sees that the audience is bored, interested, or puzzled.
For example, if you take a familiar joke and change a few surface details, it will still be recognized as a certain kind of joke. But if you change too many details, the joke will no longer be understood as a joke, and your audience will not laugh. They may not, in fact, be aware that you have made them your ‘audience’ and so may not have been listening very well -- for ‘proper’ folklore performance marks out a ritual moment that people recognize as deserving more than ordinary attentioniv. This is what is meant by the inability of changing folk materials too much -- the public likely to understand a folklore item will penalize the radical innovator by saying, “That’s not funny,” or “I don’t understand it.” In many other ways, this is the process that restricts too much change within a folklore tradition, whether the lore be jokes, riddles, melodies, folktales, or myths.v Yet the ability of individual performers in a tradition to vary their performance within certain limits means that, yes, change does occur, and no single telling of a folklore item is exactly the same as any other (short genres such as proverbs and riddles can be exceptions). Still, most performances of a certain folklore type in a given locale (say, the light bulb joke, or a dragon slayer legend) will have a common ‘core’ of structure and theme from telling to telling. The conservative tendency in folklore acts as a normative force in society -- ensures that a stable core of common understanding exists in a community. Yet folk tradition does in fact change, usually slowly, but inevitably. Consider the advantages of both conservatism and innovation in any culture, and know that societies can use both to advantage, and do, and have always done so.
The Modern Study of Folklore
Folkloristics -- the modern study of folklore ...-- concerns the fund of ideas that a folk-group uses (what is said, made, and acted in a tradition); and it concerns the settings where things are said, made, and acted, into which shared ideas are funneled during performance. Because folklore is a set of ideas held in common by human groups, it is a living system, and seldom can we point to one original story or one fixed form of a story (think of a joke you heard recently; how would you trace its origin? Where and what is its “original”?). Instead, as mentioned above, there are literally endless numbers of stories told by individuals over the years. Most of them will resemble one another closely, but because folklore is told in specific settings -- for family, at a gathering of neighbors, on ritual occasions -- the purposes and specific character of any one telling are never quite the same. For these reasons, modern approaches to folklore attempt not just a passive collection and publication of the words or movements of a traditional performance, but also try to record the social context: who was present at the performance (family, adults only, children, friends, dignitaries, etc.), in what kind of physical space (indoors/outdoors, ritual space, etc.), when the story was told (season, time of day, holiday?), and what dramatic gestures accompanied the story (Did the performer make gestures, or sing, or use prose, poetry, or a mixture of all? Did the audience speak refrains, or make other interjections or participation?). Unfortunately, after folklore is made static as print, photograph, video, or sound recording, the contextual details surrounding the folklore are gone, and the item becomes “frozen” in form and may become viewed as a “typical” piece of folklore by readers, viewers, or listeners when in fact the performance may not have been typical. However, the modern folklorist provides as much of this background as possible, as well as clues in the text about how the story was told. Special symbols can be inserted in a printed text to indicate when the narrator smiled or gestured or raised the pitch of her voice; annotation of the text can provide other information about the context of the performance.vi
Contextual details are important when we want to speculate about the reasons for change in performances, and when we want to consider function. Folklore can have many functions, and the same kind of story can have different functions in different societies (the dragon slayer story can be a myth in one society and a legend or folktale in another). Sometimes folklore can have very direct roles in ‘getting things done’ in society. The use of proverbs is a perfect example. Traditional proverbs can be told to get a point across by avoiding direct mention of a potentially upsetting subject. If you dislike getting up early to go to work, someone might say, “The early bird catches the worm,” sending you a message without having to say directly, “You’re lazy! Go to work!” Even when folklore is not aimed at obtaining some direct action, the stories serve as models of behavior that can generally educate the audience in social values. Audiences of folk traditions may go on to emulate the good behavior of heroes and avoid or criticize aberrant behaviors of anti-heroes. Especially in an oral/aural setting, individuals can observe the reactions of others to the events in folk narrative and learn how certain behaviors are valued in the community. (You learn the same thing by listening to ordinary conversations, but folklore offers the advantage of condensing and enhancing social information and presenting it in a focused medium.)vii
What is important to note is that none of these possibilities can be explored without including contextual information in the study of folklore. We need answers to such questions as: Does the audience emulate or avoid (or value or devalue) patterns of behavior portrayed in the lore? Does the performance ‘get something done’ in the society? What stories are told to whom, and when? What relevant events were occurring in the community at the time the story was told, and was the story told as a symbolic comment about those events? With this kind of information, we can learn much about the role of folklore in living society.viii
Folklore Categories
Several categories under the term folklore have already been mentioned -- songs, proverbs, anecdotes, folktales, legends, myths. Folklore indeed exists in many forms. The short list below is meant to provide some idea of these forms but is not a complete listing; nor do all forms appear in all societies:
• Short sayings (either as relatively formless beliefs -- those that can be communicated in a variety of ways -- or certain forms such as jokes and proverbs, which are recognized only when appropriately structured and told at certain occasions);
• Anecdotes (generally factual personal stories that nevertheless can mix in exaggeration or even fantasy);
• Full narratives (stories), sometimes called fables or folktales, and are taken to be fiction (can include narrative songs, sagas, and epics, although scholars often see these as separate narrative genres);
• Myths: sacred stories taken to be true;
• Legends, usually taken to have an element of local history (known characters, events, and landmarks) but may involve supernatural elements. Legends can invite different positions of belief -- they can be believed, partly believed, or not believed, yet passed along as an interesting story (a house in your neighborhood reputed to be haunted is a good example; some people may believe in a ghost, others may keep back their opinion but agree that something there is strange, others may laugh at the whole idea). Religious folklore makes frequent use of legend-style. Modern reports of sightings of the Virgin Mary show signs of the legend form and process.
The built-in ambiguities of legends (especially contemporary legends) make this genre fascinating yet difficult as a category because it can use anecdotal narration (personal story told as true), story telling (narrator is distanced from the legend), supernatural events, and local characters. Also, legends can be divided into more than one kind. Two broad divisions are legends of the distant past involving important folk heroes (the exploits of King Charlemagne, St. Patrick, or George Washington can be analyzed as legends), and local legends involving the near-past of one’s community (the author’s neighborhood recounted stories about his cousin’s adventures on motorcycle and horseback, some of which involved supernatural motifs, such as stretches of country road terrorized by strange people living in the woods).
• Non-verbal behaviors are also included in folklore, such as dance and handicrafts. The general fund of shared folk-ideas can affect behaviors as diverse as telling a story, dancing a dance, or building a bench or sewing a quilt in ways that can be identified with a certain tradition and folk group.
Folklore and Literature/Film
Folklore as a process of re-using constantly modified yet in some cases very ancient thought-patterns in a culture can blend perfectly with modern customs. In fact, folklore was always “modern” but because our culture is capable of preserving things from the past in a museum-like way, we are sometimes blinded to the growth of new folklore genres and contexts, and the continuation of folk practices right into the midst of contemporary society of all sorts: farms, factories, offices, laboratories, locker rooms, living rooms. There is limited number of story patterns. There are endless little details, and those details a usually concern with modern customs, technology, ways of dressing, current ways of using language, and other things. But underneath those details there are a lot of similar kinds of stories -- basic patterns of stories are ancient (quest, initiation, rite of passage, influence of supernatural world, defense against monster, magical helpers, rags-to-riches, etc.).
The modern spy film is a good example. A “James Bond” kind of character often enacts episodic series of events throughout many movies (sneaks into buildings, uses extraordinary objects to get things done, such as a laser-beam watch, defuses bombs at the last moment, escapes from an elaborate plan/mechanism meant to execute the spy-hero) and meets stock characters (the mad scientist who want to dominate the world, the sultry, sexy spy-chick who is as clever as he is but is his enemy, the somewhat humorous side-kick who is technically clever and loyal but seldom gets to do the cools tuff that the spy-hero does, the powerful almost ogre-like male opponent the spy-hero must overcome). These features may remind us of folktale patterns.
Differences between written stories and oral stories:
In oral traditions, the community has control (a live audience who can respond, and a regular audience of the same people in the community),
• Oral stories are dramatic (gestures, tones of voice, song, audience participation)
• Creativity and change is possible and usual but often at a slower rate and in less drastic ways than literary traditions.
In contrast, the written tale is more stable, and has more of a social context of reader-isolation.
• The writer is free from direct audience influence;
• The writer has all the time in the world to think and prepare and craft;
• writing has changed our notions of tradition and innovation; literature is even more free to change, although is not free from influence of past stories; (editors do control in some ways, and audience controls with buying behavior), also social niches in complex society and mass media allow authors to find niches.
• Stability of written form lets “too weird” stories find more hospitable audience/editor/publisher later (i.e., Melville’s novel Moby Dick was not popular at the time he published, but because the novel was preserved in writing, it could become popular after his death, at a time when society was “ready” for this story. In this case the publishing/editing industry becomes both a ‘gatekeeper’ that prevents circulation of written stories (often a gatekeeper based in classist, ethnocentrist, sexist, and racist values, unfortunately) and as a preserver of that which was first held down due to editing or marketing forces.
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Specifics on the Legend Genre
Next to the joke and the short saying, the telling of “legends” is one of the most common storytelling methods used in contemporary society, and its makes a good area of study in a variety of contexts. A legend is usually a story told orally (and sometimes received over Internet or even made into Hollywood films) concerning an unusual or possibly fantastic incident. The incident may even be defined as supernatural. The legend may be treated as a historical fact, but the teller and the listener do not necessarily have to believe that the legend is true. In other words, legends create a variety of beliefs about their relationship to “the truth.” This is because the primary function of legends is to pass along a strange story.
A legend is usually a story told orally (and sometimes received over Internet or even made into Hollywood films) concerning an unusual or possibly fantastic incident. The incident may even be defined as supernatural. The legend may be treated as a historical fact, but the teller and the listener do not necessarily have to believe that the legend is true. In other words, legends create a variety of beliefs about their relationship to “the truth.” This is because the primary function of legends is to pass along a strange story and to discuss the nature of reality. The legend shows the intrusion of another world onto our own; the uncertainty of worldview then allows us to discuss what home is, what the rules are, what is normal and what is not.
The legend almost always involves a place or person/group near your own community (or at least in the same region -- you should be able to get there with little trouble). You might say that, unlike the fairytale which shows the hero leaving the community on an adventure with the promise of a safe ending, the legend focuses on the home community and concerns strange events in or on the borders of that community, and the ending does not exist because we are left wondering about that intrusion of another world into our own.
Functions of Legends
Here are some functions of the legend genre (you might think of others, or other ways to think of my own categories):
Legends Entertain Us
I am uncomfortable by the deceptive term “entertainment” because we can use it to write off a behavior as “just entertainment” when in fact the behavior may represent meanings as complex as any other human custom. Yes, we are thrilled by strange stories, or we may even laugh at them, and we are always interested in hearing one. One way to dig deeper into why strange stories interest us is to apply psychological and social theories.
A social theory: We are interested in the way the hero of a legend may or may not have handled the situation because humans always seek models for both successful behavior (to be emulated) and unsuccessful behavior (to be avoided).
A psychological theory: One common theory is that we like to experience “safe” horror in the form of a story because we can “release” our dark and hidden subconscious desires and fears by seeing these desires and fears played out against other people. Also, we may subconsciously want to experience (safely) extreme danger, and then re-emerge (safely!) back into the real world; the emotional roller coaster ride provides a sense of release (this is called catharsis).
A combo-theory?: The legend seems to make us appreciate our home communities. Whereas the folktale/fairytale urges us to leave home to have an adventure and learn to grow as self-sufficient heroes (a benefit to personal psychology and growth) -- and ends happily -- the legend urges to think that the home where things are normal is the safest place to be because outside the norms of the home lie Hook murders, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, and cursed locales. If the outer world is uncertain, even unsafe, then this concept might aid the formation of close-knit community feeling.
On the other hand, the ultimate destruction of the feeling of safety is any story in which one’s familiar relations and home are threatened: the monster invades the house, the car, the spaceship; your parent or spouse seems “different” and you can’t trust them. These fears have been expressed in a variety of folktales, legends, and films. How the situation ends will help define what kind of story it is: if a hero arises to throw the monster out of your home, then we have a good ending, thus a folktale or epic (whether it is in the form of a medieval epic like Beowulf or a science fiction film like Aliens may not much matter!). If we are left with a feeling of dread, with no solution to the threat to our safe environment, if a strange occurrence such as a ghost or UFO upsets the rules of ordinary life (which may include our beliefs in orderly rules governing the world), then the story may have legend-qualities -- a tale designed to make us consider and discuss the cosmos itself. And that is a bit beyond mere “entertainment.”
Some examples of legend topics that may seem entertaining/thrilling are: unexplained disappearances, murders, ghosts, haunted houses, strange people in the neighborhood, UFO sightings, monster sightings (often like “Big Foot” or perhaps lake monsters), odd events, interesting rumors (a house exists under a lake where it fell off a barge while it was being moved; a tunnel exists under the ground from some forgotten project).
Note: “family legends” can also be included in this study, although the stories may not have all of the features of the typically horrific or supernatural legend. Obviously a family ‘legend’ will be based in fact (the real family member, a real location, a real historical event), although sometimes family members can tell stories with the mysterious ingredients of legends. Your Uncle Joe saw a ghost, your mother grew up in a haunted house, etc.
Strange stories let us test audience reaction, and thus the social ideas held by the audience
Audience reaction reveals their position in society and their “worldview” (general philosophy about life and other people). You don’t have to believe in the legend to be entertained by it (we do not always belief in the films we see though we enjoy seeing them). When you see the reaction to the legend, you form your own reaction in order to “shape” your social identity. For example, if you tend to believe in the supernatural, and if the other listeners of the legend seem to be open-minded, you might risk mentioning your beliefs among like-minded people (this is where social identity is formed: you have found people who seem to believe as you do; you may want to join this “community” by identifying with them). On the other hand, if the audience seems to disbelieve in the supernatural, you have the option of restraining yourself so as not to open yourself to criticisms of your beliefs.
Or we may even adopt different positions at different times to “play” with our identities (perhaps this is like putting on a costume for a costume party): in one group you may be skeptical about Big Foot legends, and in another group you may express belief in Big Foot; thus the legend lets you create a persona (identity) to fit into various social groups, perhaps as harmless play, perhaps as exploration of who we really are.
Legends may present national history and help form comfortable beliefs about national origins and national heroes (often a conservative function helping enforce establish political power)
Other types of legends include those taken to be historical fact, including both ancient history and local (possibly recent) neighborhood history. The story that a young George Washington chops down a cherry tree leading him to confess the truth to his father is a historical legend. This incident probably never happened, but became part of our legendary history because it is a story that emphasizes the honesty of the founding president of our nation, and this is an important belief to hold about such important person. Even more ancient legendary history is the legends of the Old Testament (Judaeo-Christian legendary history), and the legends of King Arthur (British legendary history). Note that the process can also occur for local history and local neighborhoods -- neighborhood tricksters, heroes, and bullies -- strange character get the next category under ‘ostracism.’
Sometimes our strange stories (legends) also are used in social control
Societies contain a variety of individuals with their own set of idiosyncratic characters, but societies also hold beliefs called “norms,” which curb our public behaviors. Some legends are designed to serve the needs of the neighborhood society by expressing and enforcing its norms of behavior. These norms are not usually confined to specific locales but rather are the norms of social classes and ethnic groups.
One category of people a legend may be aimed at is the people whom we associate with and protect: for example, young adults. Legends that tell about murders who haunt lovers lanes -- the legends of "hook" -- in essence warn young lovers about transgressing the rules created by adults covering sexual behavior for teenagers. Such legends may become models to show “good and bad” behavior in that community, or to comment about the authority in a society. For example, the various ‘lovers lane’ legends such as “Hook” punish lovers enjoying illicit sexual relations who fail to heed the radio news alert of an escaped murderer in the area (one of the lovers is murdered in the legend), but lovers who heed the warning and leave the secluded area are rewarded by surviving (and presumably they will curb their illicit sexual meetings in the future). For the young people, the legend can also have a symbolic function: “hook” could symbolize the adult who try to force young-folk’s behavior to conform to the adults’ norms. Legends can indeed offer rich opportunity for discussing a society’s concerns.
Sadly, some legends “scapegoat” minority groups by portraying them in legends as having strange, harmful customs. These kind of legends probably have a long history. Societies often like to maintain an illusion of “purity” (behavioral and ethnic or homogeneity, which may seem safe and comfortable for the majority members (we are all majorities and minorities in certain contexts: all we need to do is walked into a new region, neighborhood, or job, and suddenly we become a minority with “odd” ideas!). People who do not conform to the illusion of social “purity” are sometimes pressured to conform, and stories/jokes/legends told about them is part of this social pressure.
Historically, various groups of people have been portrayed negatively in folklore: loners (example: sometimes old men or women living alone have been made into witches or murderers in legends), small social groups (example: young adult societies such as Skinheads, Goths, video-gamers, role-playing gamers, etc.), social class groups (examples: the so-called odd behaviors of rural people, the supposed criminal behaviors of inner-city people, the coldhearted materialism of wealthy people), religious and ethnic groups (many examples: when America was predominantly Protestant and Anglo, Jews, Catholics, Irish, and Italians were discriminated against; nowadays other religions and immigrant groups suffer).
Norms can be enforced right in your own neighborhood through the folklore process. If someone leads a somewhat unusual lifestyle, even though it may be entirely legal the local people may feel that social norms have been broken. Consider the case of the person who lives alone in a secluded house, who seems to have no visitors, whose occupation is unknown, and who may have an unusual appearance, such as long hair or old clothes. Local legend sometimes turns this kind of person into a witch or some other threatening personality. Stories circulated about this person will then have nothing to do with fact (beliefs about illegal activity, black magic, kidnapping, and other stories). In these cases, legends emphasize normal behavior by defining abnormal behavior in the form of legends about unusual people.
Unfortunately, these kinds of legends often operate according to stereotypes -- in other words they may represent our prejudiced thinking and could result in harm to the person who is considered unusual. Throughout history, many individuals and groups have been persecuted based on such disagreeable thinking circulated as legends. In medieval times, anti-Semitic feeling against Jews resulted in legends that claimed Jews kidnapped and murdered children; such stories expressed not fact but a prejudiced and unsubstantiated belief about people of another religion and culture; and sadly, such stories probably resulted in poor behavior or even violence against Jews. Thus legend has a strong function in society in teaching and enforcing the norms, but can have tragic results.
Social/Political Protest
But enforcing the norms is not the only important duty of legends; a legend can also be a form of social protest. At one time, stories were told in South and Central America about rich Americans who were allegedly having poor children kidnapped to have their organs stolen; their bodies were dropped by the wayside with their eyes and major organs cut out of their bodies. These organs were to be used to transplant into wealthy, diseased Americans. As it turned out, the stories themselves were not true, but the legend highlighted the concerns of some of the Central and South American communities: (a) the great difference in wealth and privilege between the two regions, and (b) the behavior of Americans -- perhaps in the form of rude tourists -- who sometimes act as if all other countries exist to serve Americans. So even though the legends are at the surface untrue, the core of their meaning contains a deeper symbolic truth about the unequal relationship between First World and Third World nations.
Legends Can Challenge the Mainstream Knowledge Base
The protest can also be about less sensational things that, nonetheless, influence our lives, such the very beliefs the mainstream society wishes us to live by (for, after all, knowledge is power). Said another way, sometimes we form social identity by challenging other parts of society. Example: Telling legends can challenge the privileged views of science (and thus of scientific or educated people) by leading into a general philosophical discussion about the nature of truth; and indeed, there are different kinds of “truths” in culture.
Many societies have both conventional and unconventional forms of knowledge. For example, scientists tend to discredit the tales of the supernatural, or stories that lack any evidence (such as Big Foot and UFO stories). Some people may feel that this state of knowledge is too harsh or strict. For such people, the legend exists to question our mainstream (or “official”) knowledge to suggest that the strict limits of “official” knowledge can be transcended. This can give them a feeling of comfort by thinking that the privileged view of science in our society (and the privileged position of scientists) can be challenged by the common person’s observations of the world.
[ Add and cite example of political challenge: the local miner from an Appalachian village vs. the mine manager; the mine manager named the mine on a map in the official company term, Pit #12, whereas the miner kept calling the vast hole in the ground, “Rattlesnake Gutter,” after the ancient placename before the mine had come to devastate local villages. ]
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Possible Exercises/Essays: (1) the legend collection exercise; (2) compare fairy tales to genre film plots. (3) Define myths further and ask them to find developing modern myths (New Age, political film, science-based, etc.). (4) Folklore in Microcultures -- what rituals, jokes, stories, and legends do focused groups use: skateboarder/roller-blader/snowboarders, groups based on music lifestyles, motorcycle clubs/ATVers, sailing/boating enthusiasts, hotrod builders/antique vehicle restorers, actors/actresses (interview students at NVCC’s Theatre Dept), scuba divers, joggers, weightlifters, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, police/fire personnel, cooks, waiters/waitresses, pilots, medical/EMT personnel, role-laying gamers, video gamers, radio-controlled car/aircraft hobbyists, amateur photographers, amateur astronomers, home decorators, craftspeople....and any group imaginable. Many or most of these groups have magazines devoted to their lifestyle; go to the magazine section of any large bookstore to find your primary source materials!


i Richard Bauman, “Differential Identity and the Social Base of Folklore,” Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds., Austin: University of Texas Press, 31-41, 1972. See Alan Dundes’ works on the folk group and folk idea: “Folk Ideas as Units of World View,” Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds., Austin: University of Texas Press, 93-103, 1972; and Interpreting Folklore, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

ii Concerning definitions of folklore centering around the size and nature of groups, see Dan Ben-Amos, “Toward a Definition of Folklore In Context,” Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds., Austin: University of Texas Press, 3-15, 1972, and Alan Dundes, “Folk Ideas as Units of World View,” cited above.

iii See Linda Dégh, American Folklore and the Mass Media, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; and Catherine Lynn Preston and Michael Preston, eds., The Other Print Tradition: Essays on Chapbooks, Broadsides, and Related Ephemera, New York: Garland Publishers, 1997.

iv Consult the review article of Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs to learn more about the function of performance in society: “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life," Annual Review of Anthropology 19:59-88, Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, Inc., 1990.

v Excellent introductory texts to folklore will serve the student well to gain a general background in folklore studies. Elliott Oring, ed., Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986/8th printing 1996. Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore (revised and expanded edition), Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996. Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones, Folkloristics: An Introduction, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Collections of classic folklore studies can be found in Alan Dundes’ The Study of Folklore, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965, and Interpreting Folklore, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. The classic work on oral epic traditions is Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960. See also John Miles Foley, The Theory of Oral Composition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. On the general concept of tradition, see Henry Glassie, “Tradition,” Journal of American Folklore 108/430:395-412, 1995. J.E. Limon and M.J. Young review recent theories in “Frontiers, Settlements, and Developments in Folklore Studies, 1972-1985,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 15, Bernard J. Siegal, ed., Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, Inc., 1986.

vi For examples and discussion of such methods see Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1982; and Dell Hymes, “Ethno-Poetics, Oral Theory, and Editing Texts,” Oral Tradition 9/2: 330-370, 1994.

vii For discussion of ways in which folk traditions served as emulative or avoidance models of behavior, see: Joseph J. Duggan, “Social Functions of the Medieval Epic in the Romance Literatures,” Oral Tradition 1:3. 728-766, 1986., Roger D. Abrahms, “Personal Power and Social Restraint in the Definition of Folklore,” Toward New Perspectives in Folklore, A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds., Austin: University of Texas Press, 16-30, 1972.

viii On the ways in which context influences and frames performances in a group see: Mary Hufford, “Context,” Journal of American Folklore 108/430: 528-549, 1995. The following works consider the function of folklore: William R. Bascom, “Four Functions of Folklore," Journal of American Folklore 67:333-349, 1954; Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs (1990, cited above); Charles L. Briggs, “The Pragmatics of Proverb Performances in New Mexican Spanish,” American Anthropologist, 87/4:793-810, 1985; Luisa Del Giudice, “Oral Theory and the Northern Italian Ballad Traditions: An Ethnographic Approach to the Ballad Formula,” The Journal of Folklore Research 31:1-3: 97-126, 1994; see also Duggan (1986, cited above); John C. Messenger, Jr., “The Role of Proverbs in a Nigerian Judicial System,” Southwest Journal of Anthropology 15: 64-73, 1959.


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