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Encyclopedia > Folk tale

Folklore is the ethnographic concept of the tales, legends, or superstitions current among a particular ethnic population, a part of the oral history of a particular culture. The academic study of folklore is known as folkloristics.


The concept of folklore developed as part of the 19th century ideology of romantic nationalism, leading to the reshaping of oral traditions to serve modern ideological goals; only in the 20th century did ethnographers begin to attempt to record folklore objectively. The Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, collected orally transmitted German tales and published the first series as Kinder- und Hausmärchen ("Children's and Household Tales") in 1812.


The term was coined in 1846 by an Englishman who wanted to use an Anglo-Saxon term for what was then called "popular antiquities". 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 which Herder developed.


While folklore can contain religious or mythic elements, it typically concerns itself with the mundane traditions of everyday life. Folklore frequently ties the practical and the esoteric into one narrative package. It has often been conflated with mythology, and vice versa, because it has been assumed that any figurative story that does not pertain to the dominant beliefs of the time is not of the same status as those dominant beliefs. Thus, Roman religion is called "myth" by Christians. In that way, both myth and folklore have become catch-all terms for all figurative narratives which do not correspond with the dominant belief structure.


Sometimes "folklore" is religious in nature, like the tales of the Welsh Mabinogion or those found in Icelandic skaldic poetry. Many of the tales in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine also embody folklore elements in a Christian context: examples of such Christian mythology are the themes woven round Saint George or Saint Christopher. In this case, folklore is being used in a quasi-pejorative sense. That is, while the tales of Odin the Wanderer have a religious value to the Norse who wrote the stories, because it does not fit into a Christian configuration it is not "religious" per se. Instead it is "folklore."


On the other hand, folklore can be used to accurately describe a figurative narrative, which has no theological or religious content, but instead pertains to unconscious psychological patterns, instincts or archetypes of the mind. This lore may or may not have components of the fantastic (such as magic, ethereal beings or the personification of inanimate objects). These folktales may or may not emerge from a religious tradition, but are nevertheless psychological in nature. "Hansel and Gretel" is a strong example of this fine line. It can be said with some degree of certainty that the purpose of the tale is not primarily one of mundane instruction regarding forest safety or secondarily a cautionary tale about the dangers of famine to large families, but rather it is a story that evokes a strong emotional response due to the universal themes and motifs such as “The Terrible Mother”, “Death” and “Atonement with the Father”. There is moral scope to the work, but more importantly there is a message for the psyche.


The modern Western folklore that we face today has been identified by some scholars as that of the urban legend and the conspiracy theory. UFO abduction narratives can be seen, in some sense, to refigure the tales of pre-Christian Europe, or even such tales in the Bible as the Ascent of Elijiah to Heaven in a spinning wheel. Are these "folktales"? Or is their religious dimension being purposefully, if unconsciously, ignored or suppressed?


Categories of folklore

Other usages

In mathematics and some related disciplines, the term folklore is used to refer to any result in a field of study which is widely known by practioners of that field, but considered too trivial or unoriginal to be worth publishing by itself in the research literature. Such results often have to wait for a new textbook on the subject, or a survey article, before they appear in print.


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