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Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday Ground Up: The Roles of Folklore in Primitive Societies

This is a guest post contributed by Edward Khoo of EdwardKhoo.com

For decades, anthropologists have studied the folklore of various cultures, large and small, to learn how different populations view the world and their place in it. Folklore consists of myths and legends, tall tales, epics and sagas, nursery rhymes, lullabies and other “literature” of the people, the “folk.”

Anthropologists turn to folklore because, within every society – from ancient to contemporary – folklore provides critical information about the people who make up societies. Folklore is, in many cases, the foundation of a unified society. So what roles does folklore play in defining a cohesive group of people (a society)? There are many roles played by tales told around countless, warming fires throughout the ages.

Folklore Explains Why We Are Here

Almost every culture has some form of creation myth – a story that explains how the Earth and people were created in the distant past.

Christian folklore puts forth the notion that the Earth and all things were created by a single god in just seven days. And because Christianity is pervasive across the globe, this creation myth is believed by millions of people. On the other hand, the Ainu culture that originated in Japan and parts of present-day Russia believe that the world was created by Kamui, the Creator god, who made the world and placed it on the back of an enormous fish. In Chinese folklore, Earth was created by Pan Gu who used a mighty ax to break out of an egg-like object to begin Earth’s creation.

Creation myths have existed since prehistoric times to “explain” how people came to live on our planet before they knew Earth was a planet. Across all continents and across time itself, creation myths provide a context for the existence of Earth and the people who live here.

Folklore Explains The Unexplainable

Humans are, by nature, curious. We want to understand the things that go on around us, even though we lack the data needed to provide answers to natural phenomena.

Popular Tales from the NorseThe Norse cultures of Northern Europe attributed lighting to one of their many gods, Thor, whose mighty hammer generated thunder and lightening. Because this primitive society lacked the science to explain these common natural occurrences, folklore was used to explain that which could not otherwise be explained.

Why does the sun rise and set each day? Why does it rain? What causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions? Why is there evil in the world? Early cultures lacked the science needed to explain everyday phenomena. Folklore provided answers to questions that people had.

Folklore Teaches Right From Wrong

The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)There are numerous instances of folklore that defines good and bad, right from wrong, acceptable behaviors from the unacceptable. In the Greek poet, Homer’s, epic The Odyssey, Odysseus is prevented from returning to his homeland because he showed a lack of respect for the Greek gods and so, his boat and crew endured punishment that lasted for years.

In the English folktale of Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the town of Canterbury on horseback in exchange for lower taxes, the townsfolk agreed to avert their eyes to protect Lady Godiva’s modesty. However, one man named Tom was struck blind when he peeked out his shuttered window. From this tale, the English language has a term for people who peek into the windows of others – Peeping Toms.
Because this member of the community broke an agreement, he was blinded and forever associated with bad behavior.

Folklore Instills Societal Values

Different cultures value different attributes, characteristics and aspects of the physical world and of humanity.
Native American Stories (Myths and Legends)Native American folklore emphasizes the importance of Mother Earth, the giver of all things. Indigenous Americans gave thanks to the game they killed to eat and survive. The Plains Indians of America would thank the buffalo they had just killed, while simultaneously thanking the Earth for providing food for another day.

When Europeans made their way westward across present day America, millions of buffalo were slaughtered, almost to the point of extinction. Buffaloes were hunted for sport because these newcomers didn’t value the life of a buffalo the way the Plains Tribes did. Different cultures possess different values, expressed in it’s folklore.

Value systems have been passed down from generation to generation through the use of folk tales and legends that often became institutionalized in the form of religious belief. The ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated numerous gods and goddesses into a poly-theistic religion comprised of gods who possessed characteristics remarkably similar to human characteristics.

The Greek god, Zeus, showed anger, weakness, jealousy and revenge. The Norse protector god, Thor, was thought to drink too much mead – the alcoholic beverage of the Norse people. The Christian god shows anger, jealousy, and a mean spirit in the Old Testament of the Bible. It was this god who demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove Abraham’s belief in the Christian god. This tale is part of the folklore of the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism, indicating just how ingrained folklore is in diverse societies with differing value systems.

Because these gods and goddesses acted like humans, the myths that surround these deities teach what is important to the culture, from personal sacrifice to unshakeable loyalty to the tribe or society.

Folklore Protects the Innocents

Many folk tales revolve around the dangers of the world and how to stay safe in an unsafe environment. Western civilization tells the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” a young girl sent to deliver food to her ailing grandmother, and warned not to speak to strangers as she walks through the woods.

Little Red Riding Hood meets a wolf and tells the scoundrel where she is headed and why. The wolf arrives at the grandmother’s house, dresses in the grandmother’s clothes and eats the young girl who’s only saved when a woodsman opens the belly of the wolf to free the young girl. It’s a gruesome warning – a cautionary tale – that tells young people to avoid strangers – a lesson we continue to teach today around the globe.

Folklore Is Entertainment

In primitive societies, story tellers, minstrels and others who created folklore, were held in high esteem. The tribe or clan would gather around the story teller who would weave intricate, interwoven tales that entertained. There are numerous instances of humor in folklore.

Tall tales, for example, contain exaggerated figures, often with super powers. Mystical, mischievous jinn who play tricks on humans are common in much cultural lore. The Americans, travelling west, created numerous, humorous characters including Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Old Storm-along. The objective was to tell the most outrageous exaggerations about these characters. So, the Grand Canyon –a natural wonder – was created by Paul Bunyan dragging his axe across the flat land, or by Pecos Bill’s spurs as he rode his wild stallion.

The objective of tall tales was simple – to amuse.


Much folklore has been replaced by modern science, though the myths are still told, the lullabies still sung, the tall tales repeated to the next generation. However, in many cultures, folklore still defines values and serves as cautions to young people. Folklore isn’t myth or legend among millions of believers today.

The importance of folklore in shaping a culture and ensuring the survival of that culture continues today, even in the face of empirical scientific data. Why?

People created folklore because they needed it. Today, folklore continues to serve many valuable purposes, which is why the stories are still told every day.

This is a guest post contributed by Edward Khoo of EdwardKhoo.com

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